Exchange House welcomes new Americans in North Hill

Efforts don’t stop despite Trump administration slashing refugee numbers 


The Akron Exchange House aims to “support, empower, and culturally enrich the community of North Hill in Akron, Ohio.”

Outside the North Hill Exchange House, rainbow ABC lettering trails the sidewalks. Dirty baby pink flip flops lay on the porch, despite the cold weather. A half empty bottle of water sits on top of the piano in the front room, surrounded by pamphlets on government support systems in Ohio.

Katie Beck, manager of the Exchange House

Katie Beck wants the house to feel like a home. 

“What’s special about it is that it’s intimate, it’s a house. We aren’t a big building with fluorescent lights, we have comfy chairs, we have welcoming people,” Beck said.

 The mission of the Exchange House is creating a public space to celebrate cultures and cultivate community capacity through “programming, partnerships and built environment.”

The first floor is the main space of their mission, the upstairs is a hostel listed on Airbnb. For around $24 a night people can stay and experience the community they created first hand.

A wide range of events are held at the Exchange House, from spiritual events to singing and dancing. The space is utilized by young and old refugees and American born to share culture and create new experiences.  

The definition of a refugee is “someone who has fled one’s home country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group,” according to World Relief organization.

But Beck prefers the term “new American.”

“I think the words we use have power,” she said, “so if we continue to call someone who’s been here five years a refugee, it holds meaning. For them it holds the meaning of not having a country, not owning a country, not being a part of that identity.”

Creating a sense of identity is important for new Americans. According to a 2014 study conducted by the Ohio Department of Mental Health, out of 200 Nepali and Bhutanese refugees, 80% felt a loss of nationality.

In 2019, 27,514 arrived in the United States according to the Refugee Processing Center. Of that number, 1,288 arrived in Ohio.

These are the lowest the numbers have been since 1980.

The Trump administration cut the number of refugees the U.S would allow into the country to 30,000. This is less than one-third of what it was in the previous administration.

President Trump has stated that, “A responsible approach to refugees is one that seeks the eventual return of refugees to their home countries so that they can help to rebuild their own nations.”

According to the Associated Press, more than 30 governors are still planning to accept refugees, including Ohio.

Governor Mike DeWine has stated that Ohio will continue to take refugees fleeing violence and oppression.

In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Gov. DeWine wrote, “The State of Ohio has a long and successful history of welcoming and assimilating refugees from all corners of the globe,” he continued, “Ohio also has a well-developed support network to welcome and assimilate refugees, primarily led by our faith-based communities.

Immigrants and refugees have continued to boost Ohio’s economy, especially Akron.

Refugee households made $3.8 million in Social Security contributions and $843,875 in Medicare contributions according to the New American Economy.

Annie McFadden, Chief of Staff and Deputy Mayor for Administration, believes that refugees are a large contributor to Akron’s economy. 

Annie McFadden, Deputy Mayor for Administration of Akron

After the drop in jobs from the rubber industry in the 1980’s, Akron had to find a way to attain and attract new people. 

“We really have been bolstered by the immigrant community,” McFadden explains, “They tend to be entrepreneurs, they are hard workers, and that is part of why we want to be a welcoming city.” 

Refugees are not only increasing the economy in Akron, but they are creating diversity within the city. 

“I think a lot of people with different experiences can really bring different things to the table in terms of business, in terms of arts and culture, in terms of food,” McFadden said, ”and I think overall that the true diversity of bringing different cultures together is really an American concept.” 

Samantha Byake is an American, but Congolese “by nationality and by nature.”

She dislikes fast food because she likes “to keep her figure” and she loves Mexican food. Tacos are her favorite.

Byake speaks seven different languages, including English, French, Swahili, Lingala, Luganda, Runyankole and Kinyarwanda.  

She first became a refugee in 2010, staying in Uganda for 8 years.

“You need to find a place where you are recognized as a person” Byake said.

Being a refugee can be a taxing challenge, in her opinion. She wants people to know that she is only looking for a place to call home, not wanting to cause harm. 

“When you are there, some countries, their doors are open to you. But people in the country don’t understand what it means to be a refugee,” she explained, “so you need to stand and say I am here as a refugee, but I’m not here against you, I’m not here to fight you, I’m not here because I want something bad for you, or I’m not here to compete with you.”

She came to the U.S in 2019 and started working three days later. Her immigration took her one year to complete. 

Byake works at the ASIA-ICHC, International Community Health Center, in Akron. She also teaches English and has started her own organization called the Better Mind Foundation.

The focus is on women’s empowerment, refugee integration, and youth career guidance. Aside from her work, she is studying to finish her bachelor’s degree in Psychology.

Byake is extremely busy, but she likes it that way. 

Samantha Byake, standing outside of the Exchange House before beginning work

“Certain people ask me, ‘Don’t you rest? Don’t you want to sleep?’ I sleep from midnight until six, that’s enough for me to sleep,” she said.

Striving towards new American’s becoming self-sufficient is Byake’s goal. She wants to help women create and produce what they put their mind to.

“A woman is someone who is so courageous, who lifts up her role and responsibility  and does it with love,” she said.

Byake aims to aid in creating jobs for new American women, from hair and makeup artists to the medical field. She wants women to be empowered.

She wants them to believe that they are not inferior or lazy, but courageous. 

Byake loves her country, but wants to embrace the positive parts of being an American. She continues to strive towards finding her identity, and working hard to get there. 

“I’ve realized that being a refugee takes courage,” she said, “but for one to have courage outside, you need to break the inner part of you.” 

Ellie Yablonski: written story, graph 

Jenna Borthwich: video, pictures/formatted text