In Post-Harvey Houston, Immigrants Struggle As The City Grapples With How To Help An immigrant family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo lost everything in Hurricane Harvey. They hope to move back to their house in time for Christmas.
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In Post-Harvey Houston, Immigrants Struggle As The City Grapples With How To Help

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In Post-Harvey Houston, Immigrants Struggle As The City Grapples With How To Help

In Post-Harvey Houston, Immigrants Struggle As The City Grapples With How To Help

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We're going to meet a family now that is struggling after losing everything in a city that is defined by their presence. When Hurricane Harvey descended on Houston, Tosha Atibu and her husband Atibu Tyty were asleep in their home with their three children when their neighbor woke them up to tell them the water was rushing up the street.

TOSHA ATIBU: It was a really scary situation because the way the water was coming in the house from the front yard, from the backyard, it was flooded everywhere. And we really had to also act immediately.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They grabbed what they could, a few documents. And then they went onto the roof. They tried to phone for help but couldn't reach the overwhelmed authorities, so the family waded into the water in search of safety.

Did you lose everything?

ATIBU: Almost everything because I lost my - the beds, the clothes, the furniture, the appliances, washing machine, dryer machine, the car, the cooker.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Three months later, and the Atibus are living in two motel rooms. The kids, Germaine, Sarafina (ph), Joshua and Etienne, were just about to head off to school when we stopped by. The room has the semi-controlled chaos of three teenagers and one 6-year-old living in the same space.

GERMAINE: I just miss the fact that I can't sleep at home where I used to sleep, and I really miss it. I wish I could go back, but there's a lot of work at home. So we have to wait and finish it, finish the work so we can go back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Germaine, the eldest. His sister, Sarafina, says it's been hard to study with hardly any privacy.

SARAFINA: There's not really any place where you can sit down and concentrate on your homework. You just got to find some type of space to do your homework.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joshua jumps in.

JOSHUA: We don't get enough sleep. And when we get to school, we feel sleepy. And, sometimes, we don't concentrate in class.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So things are tough.

All right. I know you guys have to get to the bus. Thank you.

SARAFINA: You're welcome.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have a good day at school (laughter).

The kids rush out to catch the bus. Two doors down, Tosha and her husband Atibu Tyty tell me the loss of their home has been a devastating blow for the family. They came here as refugees from Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They lost their first house there in a volcanic eruption. Then Atibu, who was a civil servant, became a political prisoner. The family escaped to Kenya, where they spent years in a refugee camp. And then, says Tosha, they were told they were going to a city called Houston in the United States.

Did you know what Houston was?


ATIBU: No (laughter). We didn't know. We didn't know have any idea of...

TYTY: That was our first...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what did you think?

ATIBU: Oh. We were like, oh, wow. This must be a good opportunity. I mean, this is good. At least we are going somewhere away from the camp. So we were excited, actually.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Houston has become the most diverse city in the country through migrations like the one the Atibus made. It's one of the biggest centers for refugee resettlement in America. And that's meant that people coming from almost anywhere in the world can find a community here that will help them get ahead. They both got jobs pretty quickly. They became active in their Congolese church. And then, in 2012, they got a house through Habitat for Humanity. Life in their new city was good.

ATIBU: As a family, I was really wishing one day to have - to be in a big house, you know, with my kids, you know, having enough space and having a good environment, you know? It was really a good experience. We really like the house.


ATIBU: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so you finally felt at that point - what? - like, you were settled here, like...

ATIBU: Yes. Exactly. We felt relieved. We felt settled. We felt comfortable, yes, to get along with life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Things are looking very differently post-Harvey. She's unemployed. He lost his car in the flood, so he can't make money as an Uber driver. They're using FEMA aid for repairs and to pay for their motel. It's not enough. Houston's grappling with how to help the thousands of people here who are like the Atibus - still struggling.

A new survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly half of the people affected by Harvey haven't gotten the help they need. The city says the plan is to open 20 so-called neighborhood resource centers to focus on recovery at the hyper-local level. Marvin Odum has been tasked with overseeing Harvey recovery for the whole city. He says these centers have been launched with immigrant populations in mind.

How do you make sure that that diversity is preserved when many of the hardest-hit citizens are indeed from marginal communities?

MARVIN ODUM: The very fact that we've designed this recovery on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis is very substantially based on the idea that we want to watch out for that very important characteristic of Houston. So, I mean, this is literally maybe the most diverse large city in the U.S. So that's why I mention not only getting people back into their homes in the same neighborhood, going to the same school with the same businesses and cultural elements they're, you know, capable of surviving because it helps preserve that diversity across the city of Houston. And we absolutely want that to be a characteristic of the recovery.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: All right. Check her real quick.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The first and so far only resource center opened four weeks ago, and we went there this past Wednesday.

UNIDENTIFIED WORKER: And are you working?


UNIDENTIFIED WORKER: You are not working...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: ...I'm about to find a job.

UNIDENTIFIED WORKER: OK. So we can definitely refer you over to our workforce, where they can be able to assist you. Legal aid is also here. I see that you were denied by FEMA. They can help you with...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The idea behind the center is simple - one-stop shopping. Everyone who comes in is assigned a case manager. And there are many booths that have staff who can deal with a variety of issues in a variety of languages. Donna Travis is a division manager with the Houston Health Department, and she's helping oversee this operation. She says low-income populations, including many immigrants, are the most vulnerable when disaster strikes.

DONNA TRAVIS: What we're seeing in that particular population - that it is more difficult to rise above the impacts of the storm. They may not have, you know, the funds to move past this as quick as someone that does have the funds. It's like, what do you do, you know? It's like you have to start from scratch again. And for the vulnerable populations, the low-income populations, that is very, very difficult.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The worry for immigrants is that post-Harvey hardships will disrupt the fabric of these communities, driving people away, making it harder for them to thrive. So it's vital for the city to get this recovery right. Houston's population has been booming, says Stephen Klineberg, a professor of sociology at Rice University and the founder of the Kinder Center of Urban Research, which does regular surveys of Houston.

STEPHEN KLINEBERG: All the growth of the most rapidly growing city in America has been the influx of African-Americans, Latinos and Asians. So this biracial Southern city dominated throughout all of its history by white men has become now the single most ethnically diverse city in the country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What attracted them here?

KLINEBERG: So a combination of very inexpensive housing with the collapse of the oil boom and very good jobs for highly skilled technical workers in petrochemicals and medical center, which is the largest medical complex in the world, and lots of low-paid service jobs that Latinos - so we became a kind of a - and there's a basic pattern of going where you know people. And critical masses develop. And so it became just a sort of a...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Klineberg gets very excited talking about this issue because he says where Houston goes, so goes America, as the demographics of the whole country also change.

KLINEBERG: The census tells us that all of America will look like Houston looks today in about 25 years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Houston today, 78 languages are spoken in the public schools, and surveys show the residents of the city have embraced the increasing diversity. The Atibu family is part of that story.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tosha and Atibu Tyty took us to their home, which they're now in the final stages of repairing. The walls are painted. Today, they're dragging in newly bought kitchen cabinets. They initially hired contractors to do some of the work, but the FEMA funds weren't enough. So now they're both pitching in to finish up the rest.

What did it used to look like?

ATIBU: (Laughter) It used to look good. I had my couches here. I had my dining table here with six chairs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The house now is empty, and they don't know how they're going to afford new furniture. But that hasn't stopped them again, in a life marked by so many setbacks, of dreaming of a better future. They are rushing to get everything ready for the kids for Christmas, so Tosha can cook a traditional meal.

ATIBU: We have a food called sambe (ph). Sambe is our - is a traditional name for the food. On the ground is cassava, then on the top, those are the leaves, cassava leaves. And we eat it with - we call it ugali. We make it from the corn flour. It's really good.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tosha and Atibu Tyty say that Houston is home now, and they have no plans to leave.

ATIBU: We are really hoping to move in, like, before the Christmas holidays. That's our wish because, you know, as a family, we like to be together and celebrate together and have fun together, you know, being in our house (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Tosha Atibu and Atibu Tyty speaking to me at their home here in Houston.

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