What started out at last week's Northland Community Council meeting as a discussion about ways to get more people involved in the organization quickly turned into: Why bother?
Council president Emmanuel V. Remy was reporting on a recent retreat held with the executive board to review the last six months and plan for the next half year, when Albany Park Homeowners Association Inc. president Bob Thurman spoke up. Although it has been several weeks since fire spread through the Summit Park Apartments on Le Marie Court on the evening of Aug. 20, leaving dozens of mostly resettled refugee families homeless, Thurman said he remained deeply offended by remarks a leader of the Somali community made to a WBNS-TV (Channel 10) crew on the scene that night.
According to Thurman, the person, who was not identified in the ensuing extended discussion, said, in effect, that living in apartment complexes such as the one being ravaged by the fire was like being back in a refugee camp.
Thurman called on community council leaders and city officials to sit down with representatives from the Somali community in the Northland area "and resolve this once and for all."
"We've bent over backwards over the years trying to get the Somali community involved, and we haven't had a lot of success," Thurman added.
Remy countered that in some ways, he could understand the kind of frustration that might have led the Somali man to make that comment to the TV crew. Life hasn't exactly been a bed of roses in many of the Northland area apartment complexes where refugees have settled, he said.
He referred specifically to the Breckenridge Apartments on Shanley Drive, recently taken over by Foresite Realty Partners LLC of Rosemont, Ill. The company specializes in turning around once-troubled multifamily developments, and plans to invest $2 million over the next 10 months on the renamed Clear Point Gardens Apartments, Remy said.
A good chunk of that, he added, will be spent on dealing with a bedbug infestation the previous management had failed to address.
"The problems there were vast," Remy said. "This happens all over."
Refugees and immigrants often feel helpless in the face of indifferent apartment management, according to Remy, and they have no idea about the concept of paying rent into escrow in order to get action on maintenance problems.
"In my view, we really need to reach out to these apartment facilities and try to get some sort of coalition going," he said.
While this has been attempted in the past, Remy suggested the Chicago-area company revamping the Shanley Drive complex might help provide the impetus to get it accomplished this time around.
NCC treasurer Sandy LaFollette, who was involved in planning for the recent Northland Community International Festival, said the cultural background of Somalis must be taken into account, and that an almost ingrained distrust of authority has to be overcome.
Tony Howard, manager of both the Karl Road and Northern Lights branches of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, said he works with lots of immigrants at both locations. Many speak little or no English and must rely a great deal on their community leaders, he said. But, Howard added, many of the deep divisions that plummeted Somalia into civil war precipitating the refugee crisis are reflected still in the people who have settled in Columbus.
Former longtime NCC president Dave Paul agreed with both LaFollette and Howard. He said in his experience, the local Somali community is "splintered" and that these people learned in their native country not to trust government.
NCC secretary Brandon L. Boos pointed out that the organization is supposed to serve all of the Northland area, and if a segment of the population doesn't understand that, it's a communication gap that needs to be addressed.
Thurman again called for involving city officials in creating a dialogue with the Somali community, and Boos agreed, saying it would be a way of "reaching out to people not represented here."