By Allen Siegler
On an unseasonably warm fall evening in Northeast Raleigh, a couple dozen boys shrieked with joy as they dashed across a small soccer field. The field, sandwiched between a roundabout and a three-tiered beige apartment complex, had dimensions that prevented any player formation other than blob.
The primary school-aged boys quipped and strategized in a variety of languages, as a mother in a hijab monitored the antics.
This scene is typical of Edgewood Apartments, a complex that houses refugees from more than 30 different countries (Edgewood is a pseudonym used to protect the safety of resettled refugees). New evacuees from Afghanistan, who left after the U.S. military withdrew its troops from the country last summer, have been moving into the building throughout this fall.
“It’s a lot of different people from a lot of different places,” said Molly Cummings, a Refugee Hope Partners intern who tutors children at the complex. “It’s really this one big community where everybody kind of knows everybody.”
Why do so many refugees live in this complex?
When refugees first come to the United States, the U.S. Department of State contracts private organizations called resettlement agencies to lead the transition process. The resettlement agencies are responsible for refugees’ immediate needs such as temporary financial support, employment services and housing.
Organizations consider many factors when housing displaced migrants. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants North Carolina Field Branch (USCRI-NC), a Raleigh-based resettlement agency, prioritizes places where families of similar ethnic backgrounds can be neighbors.
“We want to keep people together,” said Linda Harding, the community engagement consultant for USCRI-NC. “We’re looking at apartment complexes to put people in, so there has to be enough room to consistently put people so that they’re not isolated.”
Social support, apartment unit upkeep, building living conditions – along with other factors – play into how well these newly arrived North Carolinians integrate into the U.S. and even have implications for their future health.
How cost factors into decisions
USCRI-NC staff considers whether families can afford rent after government financial support ends, which is typically three months. The agency looks for places that keep monthly payments at or below $900 a unit. Because most new refugees will not have access to personal cars, staff members also prioritize apartments close to public transit hubs that will connect them to schools, shopping, social services and health care.
This is a big reason Edgewood has many newly resettled families. It meets all of USCRI-NC’s criteria, and it rents to new refugees without established credit scores.
“The apartments are pretty good, but we don’t have friends,” said Patient Samitamba, a refugee from Burundi whose family resettled at Edgewood in 2019. “Some friends just moved to other states so we don’t have friends. There’re a lot of people [from Burundi], but we don’t talk too much because they’re still new.”
Social connections are crucial for wellness regardless of citizenship status. In an NPR interview last year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy described how loneliness can set off a chain reaction that “damages our physical, as well as our emotional, health.” Over the years, many studies have affirmed that trusted friendships and relationships act as protective factors against negative health outcomes.
Of course, these priorities can be difficult to balance, and some resettlement agencies take less care to find the right housing complex.
Just 75 miles west of Raleigh in Greensboro, a housing advocacy group has found that some of its city’s agencies prioritize expediency over anything else.
“It’s more of like, ‘We have to get this to you, we have to get this to you fast,’” said Sel Mpang, the community engagement associate for the Greensboro Housing Coalition. “Most of these apartment complexes that are cheap are in distressed communities, communities that have been historically redlined and where a lot of crime happens.”
A 2020 Journal of the American Medical Association study suggests that refugees’ long-term health outcomes are also influenced by their resettlement neighborhoods. Refugees placed in low-resource neighborhoods have a higher risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes than those resettled in high-resource neighborhoods. This risk adds to traumatic experiences among refugees that could also lead to worse health outcomes, particularly among children.
In addition, property managers who neglect their buildings can produce results that end up ravaging refugees’ lives. In 2018, a fire at the Summit-Cone apartment complex in Greensboro killed five Congolese refugee children. Prior to the fire, Greensboro resettlement agencies had used the apartments for years despite many tenants’ reports of substandard living conditions. The complex was sold and renamed to Unity Place Apartments in 2019, and refugees continue to live in its units.
As a refugee herself, Mpang sees a gap between what newly resettled people know about housing and the information they need to live healthy lives. Because of this gap, a refugee’s first apartment can have an outsized effect on their long-term health.
“Thinking about refugees who’ve been in camps for 20 years, the only housing that they’ve had are those makeshift homes,” Mpang said. “When you bring them here, there’s not a lot of education on how to keep your home healthy.”
Allen Siegler is a Masters of Public Health student at UNC Chapel Hill.