If we take an aerial view of Harrisonburg, Virginia, for example, a majority of what we see is parking lots. 84% to be exact. Naturally, the blacktop exists primarily in the populated areas most requiring transit.
As Harrisonburg is a city growing bigger than its’ government can plan for, it falls victim to urban design that conforms to current standards of development and transportation. Yes, as we grow cities outward, we are constantly dividing land with roadways and knocking down buildings to make parking places.
The Virginia Theater, for example, was demolished in the late ’90s to make way for a growing population whose automobile purchases were fueling the local economy. The site of this former cinematic treasure is now the parking lots next to Jack Brown’s in Downtown Harrisonburg.
These concerns remain central to discussion among townspeople in Harrisonburg, as the issue of traffic fluctuates with the university’s class schedule. Globally, as our population continues to increase, many intellectuals are working to redesign cities around people. Harrisonburg in particular is home to a major biking community, and many take to navigating the 17.4 square, hilly miles on two wheels.
How does this relate to the refugee population in Harrisonburg?
Last Friday night, I joined an almost full house at Court Square Theater for a documentary screening presented by JMU’s Reel Change Film Festival. That evening’s spot was reserved for Fire at Sea, a third party perspective of the port city Lampedusa, an island 150 miles south of Sicily.
Despite an area of no greater than 8 square miles and a population of 6,000, this island is now the first call for African and Middle Eastern refugees seeking solace and a new life in Europe. Director Gianfranco Rosi spent months living on the island, following the day-to-day of the local people. He juxtaposed a seemingly simple existence in Lampedusa with intermittent calls from refugee boats, often hundreds crammed onto the top and bottom decks of hull boats.
The movie progresses without making any impositions, but simply shows two worlds and a community which embraces their position in the middle of the Mediterranean. It is both a well-crafted piece of cinematography, and an eye-opening look at the people who remain at the center of a politically-divisive issue. Indeed, these are men, women, and children, whom Rosi catches in moments of incredible vulnerability. When I saw their eyes, I could see their anguish, their struggles, and their fight for a life that I so easily disregard.
This film finds particular relevance in Harrisonburg, where the refugee community is an integral part of “the friendly city”. The questions the film left us with, concerning integration after settlement, were answered in a post-documentary panel. Among the most prevalent concern for refugees? Transportation.
While first-year JMU students are challenged to navigate by bus and friends with cars, consider the life of newly-settle refugees now attempting to navigate in an unfamiliar place, often times in a non-native language. Panelists from Church World Services, Harrisonburg City Schools, and other associated organizations made it clear that while various systems are in place to ease the navigation process, the bus schedule still leaves many times and areas unreachable.
The Bikes for Refugees program provides a 2-hour lesson for refugees, after which they are given the bike to use for transportation. Encouraging this cost-effective, manageable method of transportation, it will require city planners to refocus the way roads are developed and the presence of bike paths in major thoroughfares. Doing so provides an effective solution for both refugees and the rest of the Harrisonburg population. Sounds like it’s time to trade in four wheels for two.