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Refugee Safety A Prime Concern in Northeast Baltimore, Part Two
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Friday, December 23, 2011
Some 2,000 refugees are starting new lives in Baltimore’s Frankford neighborhood… but they’ve been increasingly caught in the crossfire of drug wars. This past year, a rash of crimes against new arrivals came to a head in August, when a young Bhutanese man was shot and killed. Police, refugees, and resettlement workers had already been working together, but the killing focused their efforts. WYPR’s Mary Wiltenburg reports, as part of our occasional series, “Starting From Scratch: Refugees Rebuilding Lives in Baltimore.”
On a warm afternoon last month, two Northeast District police officers circle the Parkside Gardens apartment complex in their jeep. As they pass the playground, a dozen Southeast Asian kids pause to watch them pass. Several of them wave. A boy on top of the jungle gym flashes a peace sign.
“Before, you would never see this, though, nobody would be outside. Yeah, like this would be a ghost town, even on a nice day like today. And now, you get to see them out here playing. They come up and tell us because of us, they can come and play, and send their kids outside.”
Last spring, fear ruled the residents of this and neighboring apartment complexes. Playgrounds stood empty in great weather. Robbers seemed to be targeting the newly arrived refugees who make their homes here – 10 in the first half of this year alone – and other crimes were going unreported by newcomers unfamiliar with the language or afraid of the police. The cops had joined forces with resettlement workers, apartment managers and community leaders to address the problem, and it seemed like they were making headway.
Then, on August 23rd, Big Gurung, a Bhutanese 20-year-old who’d been in the country less than two months, was shot to death by a local teen during a robbery. The refugee community and everyone connected to it were brought together by grief.
“You know, it just, you just bow your head and just say a prayer. It just – how can you explain what happened? A young man just coming here?”
Charlie Green is the property manager for Regional Management Incorporated. He has been at Parkside Gardens since refugees started moving there in 2007. He thinks about the victim and the killer. T
“And you think about, this is one of our citizens walking down. What’s in his mind? A teenager. So, yeah, it’s just, what can you say?”
After the shooting, over 100 people showed up for a packed community meeting, to talk about the crime, and how to prevent future ones. Everyone was there: refugees, police, local leaders, apartment managers, security guards, and staff of the International Rescue Committee, or IRC, the organization that brought Gurung and his family to Baltimore. Participants say it was an emotional night. One refugee stood up and said he wanted to go home. A young police officer, Kern Hosein, caught him afterward.
“I spoke with him after that meeting. I said: ‘Give us a chance, let’s see what we can do.’ ”
Hosein’s boss, Northeast District commander Darryl De Sousa, took the shooting hard. The son of Panamanian immigrants, Major De Sousa had been working with the IRC to improve communication between police and newcomers.
“What’s one of my flaws is I take every incident home with me. And I felt this one was even extra, extra, extra personal.”
The next week, he assigned two young officers – Hosein, who grew up in Trinidad, and Nicholas Sach, who was born in Kenya – to proactively police the Frankford area, paying particular attention to the refugee community. Officer Hosein is chatty and hilarious, Officer Sach thoughtful and incisive. De Sousa calls them his community bridge team. They’ve joined Bhutanese residents for everything from that anguished first meeting, to celebrations and soccer games.
At a religious festival this fall, the officers were called up to the front and blessed; in photos, they squint in their navy blue uniforms with stripes of red tikka on their foreheads and gold shawls around their necks. Driving his beat on a recent night, Hosein says he immediately felt a kinship with the refugees.
“See, right now, they are living in fear. And I’ve lived in fear, in fear of coming out of my house. Back in my home country, I had an uncle that was a bit of a knucklehead, and lot of his drama from the street came to our house. And um, it’s something you never want anyone else to live through. And now I see that with them and I just think of myself. And that kind of is really the fuel with me in dealing with them here.”
In practice, that means he and Officer Sach spend a lot of time getting to know the neighborhood American-born teens, some of whom double as drug dealers. It also means working with a refugee community that’s increasingly organized and motivated to keep itself safe.
“COP 2 reporting. Go ahead COP 2. I’m at 5500 Sinclair Lane. I’m seeing a suspicious guy looking through the window of a car.”
On a recent evening, four young Bhutanese men join the officers in the parking lot of a strip mall near Parkside Gardens. They’re training to become a Citizens on Patrol group, one that will pair the new Americans with longtime local residents. The IRC runs the program, in partnership with the Frankford Improvement Association. Officers Hosein and Sach are so committed to it, they show up at the Monday meetings even on their days off.
“Okay, what’s the description of the person? Uh, guy is with blue shirt and long pants with black shoes.”
Tonight they’re practicing with walkie talkies, giggling at their mistakes.
“Fourth time. Okay!”
But this is serious business. Most of them live just down the street from a corner where a lot of drugs are sold, and all know someone who’s been the victim of harassment or violence. T
“Ten-four. I’ll go over there.” Bhutanese refugee Gopal Rai says he appreciates their work. But with the murder of a community member so recent, and other violence still happening, he doesn’t feel very different yet.
“I don’t feel safe. But I’m pretty sure that our community is very aware, so every individual is trying to be safer themselves.”
Others see positive signs of change. Robberies in the refugee community were down in the second half of this year, just three since August, compared to 10 in the first half of the year. In Frankford as a whole, there’ve been four robberies in the past month, one of them of a refugee. International residents have the officers’ personal cell phone numbers, and they’ve started to call them for help. The man from the meeting who said he wanted to go home now tells Officer Hosein he feels safe taking the bus, and walking home.
From what he’s told me, it went from him leaving a country where he was abused and living in fear, to coming over here to have to live in fear, to now feeling free. In a country where, you know, he should be free.”
Beyond crime stats, Major De Sousa says moments like these are a big part of how he measures success. After the Christmas crime wave passes, there are other trouble spots in the district where he’d like to try a similar community policing approach. He thinks his officers are on the right track.
“And I’m proud of the work that they’ve done, and how they’ve bridged the gap.”
But Gurung’s murder continues to trouble him. The case is still open.
I’m Mary Wiltenburg, reporting in Northeast Baltimore for 88 1 WYPR.
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