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Refugee Safety A Prime Concern in Northeast Baltimore, Part One
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December 22, 2011
Crime against refugees in Baltimore has been on the rise. This past spring and summer, newcomers in Frankford were routinely targets of drug-related robberies and other crimes. Police, refugee workers, apartment managers, and community members were starting to work together to change that – when tragedy struck. WYPR’s Mary Wiltenburg reports, as part of our occasional series, “Starting From Scratch: Refugees Rebuilding Lives in Baltimore.”
A little after 10 o’clock on a hot night in August, a 911 call came in for a double shooting at Parkside Gardens apartments in Frankford. Major Darryl De Sousa, police commander for the Northeast District, was working that night.
“And I heard it on the radio – I wasn’t too far away – and I responded out there. You know, the first thing I recall is going on the scene and actually seeing a vehicle that was running, and I saw the two doors open, on the passenger side, driver’s side. And I saw the Bhutanese flag hanging from the mirror; heart just dropped.”
Refugees who’d fled violence in their home countries were coming under attack in Baltimore, the place that had offered them peace and a stable life. De Sousa says that was the moment he knew something had to change. For more than a dozen years, refugees have been resettled across the Baltimore area, but the most concentrated spot now is the intersection of Sinclair Lane and Moravia Road, where about 2,000 live in and around Parkside Gardens. Since early this year, Major De Sousa’s been worried about the area, where members of a growing Bhutanese community were becoming the targets of drug-related muggings: six between January and early May. Officer Nicholas Sach, who patrols the area, says robbery is a crime of opportunity, and the unsuspecting newcomers presented an irresistible one for criminals.
“A lot of people see the immigrants as being weaker; they don’t speak any English, you know. The Bhutanese are generally a smaller people. Also, they’re not too aware of their surroundings, especially being new to the country, so, unfortunately they became very large targets for robbery.”
Gopal Rai agrees. At a celebration this summer, the Bhutanese refugee explained the challenge for himself and others, coming to urban Baltimore after nearly two decades in rural refugee camps.
“Because people [are] just arriving, and then just they are looking around the concrete jungle. They doesn’t know the real culture, and real ways to be safe and secure in the new land.”
Rai has lived in Baltimore for a year and a half. In that time, he has become a leader in the fast-growing Bhutanese community. He says even beyond the robberies, there has been a good deal of violence and harassment.
“People in the community are being beaten by the local people, so sometimes their home are broked. Sometimes people, they threw stones [through] their window, so because of that, people are scared.”
Even incidents that aren’t very significant from a crime statistics perspective can be devastating – especially for someone who’s suffered violence before, says Warren Wilson, safety and security coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, or IRC, which resettled the almost 800 refugees who came to Baltimore this past year.
“You know, a lot of these occurrences that are happening to them are things that the police would deem “petty crimes.” But they’re tumultuous crimes to these refugees.”
Toward the end of last year, IRC caseworkers started hearing from a growing number of clients about such incidents. But the new arrivals weren’t reporting them to police. Wilson says that’s not surprising.
“Because if something were to happen to you, you would be traumatized, so you may not be able to say what the person had on. You might not even get your thoughts together properly. So just imagine trying to explain something to a policeman in another language when you’re upset. If you know any English, that’s lost. So then the policeman gets frustrated. So then the client gets frustrated. So everybody walks away and nothing gets done.”
Beyond the language barrier, in many cases, lay fear. Refugees, by definition, have been targets of violence in their home countries, often at the hands of authorities. Many come here with good reasons not to trust police. De Sousa sympathizes.
“Who knows how many incidents that there were that really went unreported, Because of maybe prior experiences or lack of trust in the police, that they just didn’t want to report it? No, I couldn’t even guess. I’m afraid to guess. I’m afraid to guess.”
So early this year, representatives from IRC; Regional Management, the company that owns Parkside Gardens; the Northeast district police; and Frankford’s neighborhood association started meeting to discuss possible solutions. Ultimately, IRC introduced the police to a number of local interpreters; when they weren’t available, officers started using a phone translation service to communicate with residents who spoke little English. Regional Management had their private security firm start working extra shifts in the area. For several weeks in May, De Sousa had his officers deploy out of a shopping center up the road from Parkside Gardens. Things began to quiet down.
“So, we did that, the robberies started to go down. We were very pleased with what we were seeing with the crime, and the reduction. It took a drastic turn down for us, and we were very happy.”
By late August, the partners were feeling pretty good about the situation. IRC had a party to celebrate the opening of their Baltimore Orientation Center, where they would teach newcomers about acclimating to life in America. It was standing-room only. There was a ribbon-cutting:
“Are you holding on to it? Okay, the BOC is officially open!”
And IRC staff turned out in force, along with representatives from the Maryland Office of Refugees and Asylees, and the Frankford Improvement Association. De Sousa remembers.
“On August 22, the IRC had the groundbreaking: very nice day, eventful day, beautiful day. And what happened the very next day? We had the homicide.”
When police got to scene, they found 20-year-old Big Gurung shot in the chest, and his nephew, 17-year-old Bikash Gurung, with multiple gunshot wounds to the torso. The two young Bhutanese men had been smoking outside when an African-American teen approached and demanded money. Bikash, who survived, later told his sister that as he opened his wallet, the boy opened fire. Big was killed. He had been in America for a month-and-a-half.
“So it was just, it was a crushing blow, for me, you know, and the northeast. So I really felt at that point enough was enough.”
I’m Mary Wiltenburg, reporting in Northeast Baltimore, for 88 1 WYPR.
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