The Canal Winchester Times

Summit Park fire

North Side disaster leads to examination of aid response

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The Aug. 20 fire at the Summit Park Apartments off Morse Road forced people who were starting their lives all over again in a new country to start all over, all over again.

It also has started officials from churches and organizations in the Northland area, Worthington and Clintonville thinking about how to better respond when such tragedies occur.

The blaze destroyed the homes of 80 people from 23 families, most of them refugees from Nepal and Somalia.

"Many people lost everything they had," said Angie Plummer, executive director of Community Refugee and Immigration Services-Ohio, speaking last week at the sixth Northland Nonprofit Summit.

The gatherings, which initially focused on ways of preventing duplication of services as well as discovering what services are lacking in the Northland area, of late have dealt with solving some of the issues facing the Beaumont neighborhood where the Summit Park Apartments are located.

"They'd just gotten started in this country and lost everything all over again," Plummer said.

Language barriers and cultural differences helped make the chaotic situation at the fire that night even worse, said the Rev. Kwesi Gyimah of the Columbus African Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The suddenly homeless included an 11-day-old baby and diabetics who had lost their insulin, as well as members of the Hindu faith whose dietary restrictions prohibited them from eating most of the food American Red Cross officials had to offer, he said.

In the weeks since, all of those burned out of their apartments have found places to stay, and thousands of dollars worth of donations have been funneled through the Northland Alliance, the sponsoring organization for the summit meetings, to help meet the needs of the fire victims.

It all could have gone much more smoothly with more preparation on the part of officials with the churches and organizations, including Clintonville for Change, that have helped in the crisis, Gyimah said.

For example, he said, initially the families were fed with food purchased from an Indian restaurant, on the presumption it would be similar to what they're used to eating. But feeding 80-plus people was costing $400 for each lunch and supper, which was eating up donations at a prohibitive rate.

Because they had a place to stay, most of the refugees had a place to cook, so instead of buying meals from a restaurant, the church groups and others bought basmati rice, chicken, lentils, fruits and vegetables, distributing enough to the families to feed them for two weeks at a time, Gyimah said.

Then on Sept. 9, the church groups offered the fire victims a "shopping" experience in which they could pick out donated items of clothing, cookware, toiletries, school supplies and more. For people who had been handed what they owned practically ever since fleeing persecution in their homelands, choosing things was a heady experience, Gyimah said.

"They just couldn't believe it," he said.

Other emergencies, such as a fire, storm or some other type of disaster, may be in the offing, the minister added. With their response to a crisis tested by the fire, those banding together to help the refugees now are working on a plan to divvy up the types of assistance various congregations and others can be counted on to supply in the future, Gyimah said. That way, he added, a phone call or two, a few emails, and the system for assisting is set in motion.

"These things are real; it's going to happen," Gyimah said. "We can't leave it all to the Red Cross and other agencies.

"We live here. We know the area."

"Northland's a pretty organized community," said Joyce Bourgault, chairwoman of the Northland Alliance.

Adding a little more structure to that organization, she said, will mean swifter, improved response when disaster strikes.

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