NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Lina Alhomsi and her family, all Syrian refugees, recently awoke in the middle of the night to the sight and sounds of a drunken man breaking through the roof of their New Jersey apartment.
Fed up with the living conditions, she and seven other refugee families this week filed a federal lawsuit against their landlord and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, claiming neglect, uninhabitable living conditions, breach of contract and emotional distress.
More than 6 million people have been uprooted from their homes in war-ravaged Syria, many living in dire conditions in temporary camps and settlements in the Middle East.
Many of those who made it to the United States like the Alhomsi family, among the roughly 7,000 Syrians with temporary protected status, hoped for better.
Alhomsi, her husband and four children have lived in the Paterson, New Jersey apartment, some 50 miles northwest of New York City, since they arrived in the United States nearly two years ago.
The other refugee families suing also live in buildings owned by the same landlord in the run-down neighborhood, complaining of leaking ceilings, cockroaches, mice and bedbugs.
Due to the pest-filled housing, “the kids have a lot of anxiety,” Hend Elburi, programs and operations manager at SMILE for Charity, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Alhomsi’s 4-month-old daughter Linda recently fell ill from what the family suspects was exposure to rodent droppings. The baby and one of her brothers are covered with bug bites, the little boy so bitten that he was sent home from school, according to his mother.
BUGS, ROACHES AND MICE
Another refugee signed onto the lawsuit, Mohammad Hilal, who fled his hometown of Daraa, Syria, said the bed bugs, roaches and mice are causing mental health problems and conflicts for his family.
The refugee families live in the United States under the federal government’s Temporary Rental Assistance, which pays for their housing for a limited period of time.
Their future is clouded by President Donald Trump’s administration which has shown deep skepticism toward the program established by Congress in 1990 to provide temporary reprieve for immigrants whose home countries face disaster or conflict.
The lawsuit seeks immediate inspection of the properties, a rent abatement and unspecified damages.
Theirs is not the first such lawsuit to be filed against a branch of government, but the cases are rare, experts say.
In 2016, a group of refugee families sued a school district in Pennsylvania, claiming they were denied equal access to educational opportunities and forced to attend schools for underachieving students.
“This is not something I’ve heard of before, but I welcome it,” said Kevin Appleby, senior director of International Migration Policy at the Center for Migration Studies in New York.
“It’s always been a challenge to find housing for refugees,” he said.
Richard Mazawey, the attorney representing landlord Charles Florio, denied the claims, saying the apartments are habitable and regularly exterminated.
“Not only do we deny these allegations and maintain that this is frivolous and the plaintiff’s lawyers are misguided, but also, it’s an affront to all people who answer the bell to help people domestically and internationally when they’re in crisis,” Mazawey said.
According to the families, the landlord’s office accused them of being “dirty.”
Some of the refugee families say they are frightened to challenge the landlord, a prominent community member.
But others like Waheed Safour, who lives with his two children, say they are hopeful the case will bring some change.
In his apartment, the heating broke down for 10 days last winter and no one came to fix it, he said. Safour said he spent more than $200 of his own money to solve the problem.