It has been extremely disappointing to hear village trustees Ravi Parakkat, Lucia Robinson, and Cory Wesley cast aspersions on community members and make statements about the refugee humanitarian crisis at the board table, statements that are full of erroneous assumptions and misinformation.
I was one of the District 15 Police Station Response Team volunteers late on Halloween night. When I arrived at the police station, the refugees (aka our new neighbors) were already there, so my role was limited to delivering bedding and blankets from storage. But if there had been an opportunity for me to drive refugees to the police station, I would have done so. Better than standing idly by while children risked freezing to death outside, less than a half-mile from Oak Park’s borders.
Crises don’t respect municipal boundaries, and crises don’t make appointments.
At one point I too believed that, while conditions in the Dist. 15 tent cities and Chicago’s shelters were deplorable, it would be more beneficial for refugees to stay within Chicago city limits.
Here’s why I changed my mind:
For weeks and even months, Dist. 15 volunteers have been warning of a brewing humanitarian crisis, urging Oak Park elected officials to visit the tent cities at the police station and engage directly on this issue. To my knowledge, only three trustees visited: trustees Chibuike Enyia, Lucia Robinson and Brian Straw.
Over the last few months, the population of the Dist. 15 tent cities ballooned from 50 to nearly 200 people, including well over 50 children. There was no space to pitch more volunteer-supplied tents for large numbers of new arrivals; the only adjacent open space is a vacant lot, rutted and paved with gravel. Imagine spending the winter sleeping on gravel. There were only two porta-potties for upwards of a hundred people in the parking lot that volunteers refer to as Area Two, and inadequate garbage removal.
On Friday, Oct. 27, Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications sent an email to the police station volunteer liaisons citywide, stating that more refugees would be arriving at each police station over the next 10 days, and asking for help in finding locations to shelter migrants from winter weather. We reached out to faith leaders and community leaders that day, looking for space to shelter people.
On Halloween, Dist. 15 volunteers became increasingly concerned about the terrible weather— the first day in which snow/sleet and below-freezing temperatures were forecast. One volunteer even took it upon herself to see if she could arrange pickup of a truckload of corrugated cardboard from one of the big-box stores in order to insulate tents from direct contact with the ground.
As temperatures dropped on Halloween night, concern deepened. One volunteer recounted receiving a text message along the lines of “My tent is leaking and my blankets are icing over. What do I do?”
At 9 p.m., another volunteer called the Oak Park Police Department and told the desk sergeant that they needed to open village hall to shelter refugees — otherwise people could freeze to death. My understanding is that the police department said they would have to contact the village to authorize opening up village hall.
This is key: permission was requested — and permission was received — after which volunteers transported refugees (with their consent) to village hall. To my knowledge, none of the volunteers promised more than one or two nights indoors. When it became clear that village hall couldn’t hold the number of people who sought immediate shelter from life-threatening conditions, President Vicki Scaman reached out to Pastor Kathy Nolte, who opened Good Shepherd Church.
Much has been made by trustees Parakkat, Robinson, and Wesley, of harms supposedly done to refugees by sheltering them outside city limits, causing them to “lose their place in line” for the supposed array of benefits offered by the city of Chicago. I raised this issue with several people in the nonprofit sector who have extensive experience working with refugees. Not one person advocated leaving refugees to risk death on city streets to “preserve their place in line.” They were clear that this is a regional humanitarian crisis not a city of Chicago problem, and that “everyone needs to step up.”
There is something called CityKey, an official ID offered by the city of Chicago. Unfortunately, it is of extremely limited usefulness. For example, it is not considered a valid ID for the purposes of requesting a copy of a birth certificate. Furthermore, the city abruptly canceled its last scheduled CityKey event in October due to overwhelming demand, and declared that there would be no further opportunities to apply for one until sometime in 2024.
The city of Chicago has been a conduit for some housing subsidies for refugees. However, most of those are state and federal funds. The portion that originates within the city of Chicago unfortunately appears to have been depleted; the city has announced that none of the refugees going to any of the new shelters (which have yet to open) will be eligible for any housing assistance. The people who have gotten assistance have been in the system since April.
I want to be clear that I am not an expert on refugee policy; I am just a lowly volunteer. I think it is my responsibility to try to seek accurate information on issues I care about and to try to fact-check my assumptions before speaking publicly. This seems like the very least to be expected from elected officials like Trustees Parakkat, Robinson, and Wesley, who can direct village staff to research areas of concern that affect board actions.
To do anything less when lives are at stake is reckless and irresponsible.
Carollina Song is an Oak Park resident.