Hurricane Harvey: Fear and Courage after the Storm

In early December, nearly four months after Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast, Kathleen McTigue of the UU College of Social Justice and I traveled to Houston, Tex. to meet with Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) partners providing disaster relief and recovery assistance to those affected by the storm. In line with UUSC’s commitment to grassroots collaboration, our grants to these groups target community-based organizations reaching populations that struggle to access mainstream relief and services.

Two such groups in Houston include Living Hope Wheelchair Association and Fe y Justicia Worker Center. Living Hope works at the intersection of immigration and disability rights, and Fe y Justicia (“Faith and Justice”) protects the rights of “second responders,” the mostly low-wage, immigrant workers performing a bulk of the city’s post-hurricane reconstruction work.  We also met with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.as.), an environmental justice organization working with the predominantly low-income, minority neighborhoods along the Houston Ship Channel.

Throughout the trip, we were reminded that natural disasters exacerbate existing inequalities. We also felt the heightened sense of fear among certain populations, particularly undocumented immigrants, in today’s political climate. Yet, even in the face of such daunting challenges, we also witnessed the courage and dignity of countless individuals still fighting for the rights of those worst affected by Harvey.

Exacerbated Inequalities: “We were already living in a disaster situation.”

Natural disasters around the world have demonstrated that low-income households and communities of color are disproportionately affected by extreme weather. Many of these communities reside in high-risk living conditions to begin with, whether due to the quality of their housing, poor infrastructure, or proximity to flood waters and pollution. In Houston, Harvey merely intensified these struggles.  Structural barriers to accessing relief and services make longer-term recovery more difficult for the poor, racial minorities, immigrants, and those living with disabilities.

Living Hope Wheelchair Association works primarily with undocumented immigrants suffering from spinal cord injuries, most of which resulted from workplace accidents or crime. Its modest office consists of two rooms and a storage unit for medical supplies and a handicap-accessible vehicle. Many members are on constant medication, in regular pain, and in some cases, require dialysis, but very few have medical benefits. As Pancho Argüelles, Living Hope’s Executive Director, put it, “We were already living in a disaster situation with respect to health care, housing, transportation, and undocumented status,” before Harvey. After the storm, the organization’s members needed to replace electronic wheelchairs lost to flood waters, repair houses and wheelchair ramps, and raise financial assistance to cover medical, transportation, and basic living expenses.

Fear on Top of Fear

For the approximately 600,000 undocumented people living in Houston, limited access to medical benefits and health insurance, coupled with fear and mistrust of immigration authorities, have made them one of the most vulnerable populations after the storm. The majority of Fe y Justicia Worker Center’s constituency consists of undocumented immigrant workers. In the face of continued anti-immigrant political rhetoric and crackdowns by local police and immigration agencies, people have been scared to seek even the assistance and benefits for which they are eligible. This fear, on top of existing language and other accessibility barriers, has magnified needs and vulnerabilities after Harvey. Whether it is medical care for a sick child, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) benefits, or wages due, people must conduct a mental calculus to assess the risk of claiming their rights.

Alberto Luera, Fe y Justicia Worker Center Board member

Fear and insecurity also leave people prone to abuse. In numerous cases, tenants have been afraid to push back against landlords who have failed to ensure safe living conditions or unfairly evicted residents at short notice. This additional layer of fear has also had a chilling effect on activism. Living Hope’s members are now less willing to travel for state-level advocacy through hostile counties between Houston and Austin out of fear that police may inquire about their immigration status. And while the storm has increased media interest in people’s stories and highlighted important needs and concerns, speaking to journalists and publicizing identifying details creates serious risks.

A Toxic Tour

The Houston area is home to the largest petrochemical complex in the United States and the second largest in the world. On our second day, t.e.j.a.s. took us on a “toxic tour” of various municipalities between Houston and Baytown, Tex. along the Houston Ship Channel, a key transport route for petrochemicals and other goods into the Gulf of Mexico. The torrential rains and ensuing floods from Harvey resulted in “a stew of toxic chemicals, sewage, debris and waste” that disproportionately impacted nearby neighborhoods, comprised primarily of low-income people of color. A long stretch of oil refineries, chemical plants, waste processing facilities, and other industrial plants borders the ship channel. Homes, schools, parks, and playgrounds, including Hartman Park shown here, sit in close proximity to many of these facilities, regularly exposing residents to harmful chemicals.

Mural in children’s playground at Hartman Park.

T.e.j.a.s. staff explained that childhood asthma and other respiratory ailments affect a significant portion of the local population. A 2007 University of Texas School of Public Health study reported that children living within two miles of the ship channel had a 56 percent higher incidence of leukemia than those ten miles away. In 2016, the Union of Concerned Scientists and t.e.j.as. published a report finding higher levels of toxicity from chemical exposure in east Houston than more affluent west Houston neighborhoods. Indeed, to us, the pollution was visible and palpable. In some areas we visited, the air smelled, and almost tasted, sickly sweet.

In the first week after Harvey, damaged oil refineries and facilities released over two million pounds of hazardous substances into the air. Flood waters also triggered the release of thousands of gallons of spilled petroleum. Neighborhood residents experienced headaches, sore throats, eye irritation, and nausea at greater rates than usual. While air and water pollution has been a longtime point of contention for frontline communities, Harvey magnified the problem.

Unidad Park, complete with a picnic area, skate park, children’s playground, and baby swings. Industrial buildings can be seen in the background.

Needs and Opportunities

In the face of these overwhelming challenges, t.e.j.a.s. and Living Hope both emphasized that Harvey brought not just urgent needs but rare opportunities. The storm has provided a chance to draw increased national attention to underreported problems. Local civil society is using Harvey as a catalyst to raise awareness, build coalitions, and call for reforms to address the structural reasons low-income and minority communities are so adversely impacted by disasters in the first place. Living Hope explained that it is using services and campaigns to build organizations and movements toward long-term change. It has activated its members, raised its voice, and reached a new level of visibility.

As recovery continues, UUSC is proud to support organizations working to address the needs of underserved communities following Harvey. We are especially grateful to the generous donors who made this work possible. Six months after the hurricane, thousands of people are still unable to return home or rebuild their lives in parts of Texas. But among those most affected by the storm, we are encouraged and inspired to see people overcoming fear and adversity with dedication, strength, and courage toward a just recovery for their communities.

Syma Mirza is a consultant supporting the Rights at Risk portfolio.

An Interview With Rachel Freed, Vice President And Chief Program Officer

Carly Cronon spoke with Rachel Freed about her past work in human rights, what drew her to UUSC, and her most memorable moments with the organization thus far.

When and why did you first become involved in human rights work?

I grew up in a multicultural family and spent a lot of time visiting relatives in Southeast Asia, where I witnessed persistent inequalities and the dehumanization that went with it. It made me eager to develop my own understanding of how different political, social, economic and cultural forces shaped how and why people had certain rights over others.

Years later, a pivotal moment occurred during my junior semester abroad in India. I visited a rural fishing community that had been subject to fly ash pollution from a neighboring Exxon plant. Villagers in the community were mostly illiterate and had been told by the company that the fly ash was not harmful. In response to their concerns, the company-sponsored health clinics told villagers they were fine. This continued until a local nongovernmental organization working with a community member tested the water and found strains of harmful chemicals in the fish and streams.

Through outreach and education, the villagers organized the entire community, mobilized, and successfully demanded accountability. This experience helped me to understand the power of local communities and NGOs to catalyze vibrant and democratic social change movements.

What drew you to UUSC’s human rights work in particular?

My journey to UUSC was inspired by working with a UU congregation and community in a great struggle against injustice. When I graduated from law school, I worked for a civil rights firm in New York City, where the lead attorney humored my request to do pro bono work by connecting me to his UU congregation in Ridgewood, NJ. It was there that I met four passionate women who chose to spend their free time visiting detained asylum-seekers in detention centers. I offered to take one case, but then I started to get calls from the detention center on a daily basis.

There was one rather stark case I can remember – that of a Liberian refugee who escaped rebel forces during the reign of Charles Taylor, the former President and now convicted war criminal. After witnessing her siblings’ deaths, she fled the country and came to the United States. She lived here for almost seven years – just shy of the residency requirement to become a U.S. citizen – when a minor shoplifting incident landed her in detention, facing deportation. She had no representation, she suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and her kids had been taken into child protective services. My UU friends began to visit her each week to connect with her children’s government rep, and to help piece together the documents in her case. Next began our three-year journey together. It was quite a trek from Brooklyn to the middle of New Jersey, but my UU friends never failed to ferry me from the commuter rail, or deliver documents and do a visitation when needed. Eventually, we found the psychologist who had treated this woman in detention; he testified about her PTSD, and we were able to win the case. She was released and reunited with her children after nearly four years of living in the detention center.

I share this story because it is about a few caring individuals and what they accomplished by offering their time and generosity and by organizing their community for a specific cause. This is what drew me, and continues to draw me, to UUSC – it is our collective approach and struggle for justice in this world—as inspired by our founders and continued onwards through the years.

What do you like most about your job?

At UUSC, we are lucky to work with some of the most remarkable human rights activists around the world – people who wake each day not quite sure of what their efforts may bring for their communities, but who continue on anyway because of their deep belief in love, equality, and humanity. We are able to draw tremendous strength and courage from our partners. I also feel incredibly fortunate to work with such talented, passionate, and committed colleagues – I learn so much from all of our staff on a daily basis.

What is one of your most cherished UUSC memories or success stories?

One of my most cherished moments occurred during my trip to Nepal a few months after the 2015 earthquake, while meeting with one of our partners focused on trauma resiliency. They were helping to train a cadre of local teachers working with rural Dalit youth who had received very little support since the earthquake. We were in a small classroom when one of the children began to break down – she had lost her mother during the earthquake and was struggling to take care of her little brother. One of the trainers immediately calmed her down, and they sat for a while, talking and focusing on her breathing and the present moment. She managed to calm down, stop crying, and soon was smiling and sharing with us her dreams for her brother and telling us about her hopes for herself. It was really moving. I felt proud to know that UUSC was able to help bring trauma resiliency skills to teachers serving Dalit children in a remote area that had been overlooked by larger recovery efforts.

What do you and your team look for in finding new UUSC partners?

UUSC’s approach is unique to most Western human rights organizations because we center the voices of communities and their values in our pursuit to advance human rights and transform unjust power structures. Our model focuses not on a community’s helplessness or lack of knowledge, but rather their assets and their solutions. Therefore, we generally look to partner with smaller, lesser-known organizations doing innovative work to transform and empower marginalized populations, often in the face of extreme and adverse circumstances. The process of selecting new partners involves working with those organizations to identify how UUSC’s financial and other resources can be best leveraged to further human rights on the ground. It also includes mapping stakeholders, identifying points of power, and thinking through how UUSC’s voice and prominence as a U.S.-based human rights organization can be used to instigate systemic change.

What is an upcoming UUSC initiative that you are particularly excited about?

I’m in the middle of packing my bags for a trip to Zagreb, Croatia to participate in a convening that brings together our partners in the Balkans who are helping to serve Syrian refugees. At this convening, our partners from Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Croatia will be coming together to exchange information, build relationships, coordinate responses and collectively strategize on how to navigate the increasingly challenging political environments in which they operate. Our Balkans partners work in counties that have become increasingly hostile towards refugees, and their organizations are facing new government restrictions on their work. I’m excited to talk with them about their experiences and strategize ways UUSC can support their collective efforts during this critical time.

Global Compact for Migration Offers a Strong Signal for the Protection of Human Rights

             

L: Representatives from the Mission of Tuvalu to the UN and Palau’s Ministry of Immigration with Salote Soqo, UUSC’s Senior Program Leader R: Civil society groups meeting outside the conference venue

Delegations came together in strength and in unity to improve global governance on migration.

The stocktaking meeting for the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration which took place in Puerto Vallarta December 4-6, 2017 was “extraordinarily” positive. Extraordinary in the sense that during a time of rising nationalism and xenophobia around the world, there was great convergence amongst delegates to center the global compact on the protection of the rights of all migrants, and that the withdrawal of the United States from the compact did not seem to deter the spirit of the deliberations. What was seen instead was delegations coming together in strength and in unity to improve global governance on migration.

In addition to the unifying call for a human rights-centered compact that respects and empowers all migrants, other messages were loud and clear: the compact should be gender sensitive, respect migrant workers, protect children, counter xenophobia and the criminalization of migrants, encourage data-driven policies, ensure ethical business practices for migrants regardless of their status, uphold existing conventions and treaties, respect national sovereignty and above all else, increase the benchmark for addressing migration.

These are all overlying principles that we must support when it comes to governing all forms of migration, including climate-forced displacement. UUSC hopes that states will adopt these principles in earnest as they develop domestic and regional policies and we encourage states to combine compassion with urgency and diligence as they embark on this historic momentum.

The high number of non-state actors that turned up at the meeting and their engagement since the inception of the global compact has also been encouraging. From faith leaders to labor unions, and other civil society groups, like UUSC – our engagement with state delegations has made this process inclusive. Perhaps it was the scenery that made this meeting so pleasant or probably the fact that we were only a few weeks away from the holidays, but this is the standard that we hope the negotiations will adopt moving forward into 2018 and beyond.

Celebrating International Migrants Day with a Call to our Philanthropic Allies

In 2000, the United Nations General Assembly designated December 18 as International Migrants Day. This day recognizes that international migration is a growing phenomenon in our world and calls us to reaffirm and uphold the human rights of migrants and refugees.

In early December, UUSC Senior Program Leader for Environmental Justice and Climate Action, Salote Soqo, participated in a stock-taking meeting for the Global Compact for Migration – an international mechanism for advancing a more unified approach to the needs of migrants. “The meeting was extraordinary,” Soqo says, “in the sense that in a time of rising nationalism and xenophobia, there was great convergence amongst delegates around centering the global compact on the protection of the rights of all migrants.” The meeting sent a strong signal that the Global Compact — and the international community’s collective actions on migration — must be centered on human rights.

David Boseto, of UUSC Partner Ecological Solutions, and boat driver Muku in Wagina, Solomon Islands

This International Migrants Day, celebrate with UUSC as we issue a new resource, Community-Led, Human-Rights Based Solutions to Climate-Forced Displacement: A Guide for Funders. UUSC is calling more funders to engage directly on the issue of climate-forced displacement and to incorporate human rights-based approaches to amplify the voices, advocacy, and solutions of frontline communities.

Climate change is advancing rapidly and placing people’s human rights at risk. According to Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and Norwegian Refugee Council’s Global Report on Internal Displacement: GRID 2017, in 2016, 24.2 million people were newly internally displaced by natural disasters. It is likely that 200 million people will be displaced by climate change by 2050.

“Climate impacts exacerbate existing inequities in society.”

Climate-forced displacement is having severe impacts on human rights. Climate impacts exacerbate existing inequities in society. A majority of disaster-related displacements occur in low- and lower-middle income countries and disproportionately affect small island developing states, according to the Global Report on Internal Displacement. The spectrum we have developed outlines human rights at risk and key concerns for frontline communities, from the tipping point at which communities decide they must consider radical adaptation measures, through migration or resettlement.

→    The right to self-determination must be at the core of relocation planning.

“Frontline communities have the most appropriate solutions to these challenges.”

While frontline communities have the most appropriate solutions to these challenges, these communities receive the smallest share of funding and are sidelined by state and international decision makers. Trends in financing favor climate change mitigation over other approaches. No reliable mechanisms exist for community organizations to access international funds directly. Indigenous communities face additional hurdles accessing funds from national governments — and it is even more difficult for unrecognized tribes.

Our guide offers concrete steps funders can take to advance community-led, human rights-based solutions to climate-forced displacement by:

  • Assessing how climate-forced displacement relates to a current strategy or portfolio
  • Effectively partnering with grassroots communities working on issues along the climate-forced displacement spectrum
  • Advancing a human rights-based approach to climate-forced displacement
  • Acting as a bridge and network builder to amplify the voice and impact of grassroots communities