East Side Story
A New Wave of Refugees Takes Shelter in Baltimore--And Could Revitalize a Struggling Neighborhood in the Process
Abou Sall is 52, tall and slight, with formal manners and an ample supply of courtesy. His "Bonjour" is typically followed by "Ça va?" in different formulations, a courtly three-minute dance of greeting. It is easier to imagine him at his former administrative post in the Mauritanian government than at his current factory job, making parts for boats and cars at Danko Arlington in West Baltimore. He has assembled his family, filling two couches and several chairs in the narrow living room.
The room is decorated humbly but with care. Three small doilies rest on the top of each couch; two rugs overlay the carpet. A coffee table hold drinks--cherry-red oseille, made from sorrel found at a Silver Spring market. The lone wall decoration is a cordless phone. Since the Salls purchased a computer with modem a few months ago, they are better able to keep in touch with their relatives in the States and Africa. A French-language satellite channel on a muted television shows small boats traveling silently past Asian villages.
The Sall family's move to Baltimore really began in 1989, when they left their home in Mauritania for a refugee camp in Dakar, Senegal--Abou Sall pronounces the date, May 8, as if it were etched in stone. He patiently explains the Mauritanian government's 1989 attack "contre les noirs," wherein 75,000 darker-skinned citizens were deported by the country's dominant ethnic group, the lighter-skinned, Arabic-speaking "Moors." After six months in various refugee camps in Senegal, the Salls moved finally to the town of Dagana, where they stayed until their arrival in Baltimore in December 2000. Here, amid other novelties, the children saw snow for the first time.
The Salls are part of a growing wave of East Baltimore residents: refugees who come to make the United States their home, educate themselves, raise their families, buy a car, a house, the whole American dream. For now, they start out in what Deputy Mayor for Economic and Neighborhood Development Laurie Schwartz calls a "transitional neighborhood" around Patterson Park, a troubled area which nonetheless, she says, "[has] some home ownership strengths." More than 600 refugees have been placed here since July '99 by the Baltimore office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an organization founded in 1933 to aid refugees and other people displaced by war or persecution. (The writer of this story recently served as an IRC volunteer.)
Forget Ellis Island: The Baltimore Resettlement Center (BRC), which houses the International Rescue Committee among other refugee organizations, is the metro area's gateway for around 500 refugees every year, 75 percent of whom begin their American lives renting houses in the neighborhood known as Baltimore Linwood. Although the number of local refugees this year has dwindled to around 100 in the aftermath of Sept. 11 (the Baltimore IRC completely shut down for several months last fall, and the number of incoming immigrants is only now beginning to pick up), you can still see signs of a more international atmosphere penetrating the east side.
Stand near the BRC on the corner of Conkling Street and Eastern Avenue for a while and you'll see a woman in flowing robes carrying groceries on her head; friends stopping on the sidewalk to chat in African-accented French; too-cool European teenagers trying to win an argument with their parents in Serbo-Croatian. Or visit the local branch of the Enoch Pratt library on a Saturday morning and catch three Mauritanian kids playing video games while, at the computer cluster, Sudanese men practice using e-mail.
The refugee population brings a new wrinkle to an east side that has traditionally been home to a mix of European-Americans, African-Americans, and, more recently, Latin-Americans. The refugees are mostly Eastern European and African, with the largest populations originally from Bosnia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mauritania, and Sierra Leone. The word "originally" is important: For most refugees, living in their home country is irretrievably in the past. For them, Baltimore is the beginning of a new life after years spent in a host country's refugee camps. In five years, they can apply for citizenship, joining the ranks of hyphenated Americans.
While her mom braids her hair, Hawa Sall, the youngest member of the family, recalls living in the camps. Only 6 when the Salls left Africa, she remembers playing with Barbies, which are surprisingly cheap in Dagana, as opposed to staples such as fresh fruit. She remembers her friends crying over goodbyes. Now, at 8, pretty and assertive, it is easy to imagine her bossing around others in her second-grade class at Highlandtown Elementary.
But the confident girl who brings newcomers to the after-school program run by the Red Cross and the International Rescue Committee for refugee youth, was much different a year ago. Former after-school program coordinator Josephine Valencia notices a "phenomenal difference" between the shy and quiet Hawa who first arrived, knowing little English, and the girl who now helps translate and show others the ropes.
One such friend is a Sudanese girl from Hawa's class at school, 8-year-old Rusena Pirko. Valencia is excited to see the two girls together; she was worried that Rusena, who came to Baltimore with her family from a camp in Ethiopia less than a year ago, never spoke and was isolated. Spending time with the Pirko family, it becomes obvious that Rusena's home persona is not shy at all. She chatters in a mix of Uduk and English, often breaks into dance to accompany a particular mood, strong-arms her little brothers (6 and 2) when she fancies, and clearly appreciates the authority that comes with being the eldest.
Yet her quiet public persona disguises this outgoing personality. For many refugees, especially children, the pressures of adjusting to American culture while still learning English suppress the abilities they bring with them. Hawa's older sister, Heuleye (pronounced "hoo-ley"), 14 years old, describes a first year in which her only friend was Mamodou, a refugee boy from Gambia who also spoke Wolof, and whose advanced English helped her navigate being new. Traces of anger linger when she recalls being taunted by other children telling her, "You stupid, you never learn English."
For all her schoolmates' previous cruelty, learning more English seems to have done the trick for Heuleye, who now speaks well enough--and is defiant enough--to give as good as she gets. She says of her former tormentors, "Now they treat me like I'm their friend."
The language barrier is not the only obstacle with which the new east siders contend. In addition to facing the same problems as average residents--trash, drug dealing, and crime--many refugee families must also learn to decipher urban American living: Closing the windows when the air-conditioning is on, putting the shower curtain inside the tub, and learning to eat on tables instead of a sweepable floor are just the tip of the iceberg for those from more rural environments.
In some African cultures it is common to refuse offers by immediately agreeing but afterward politely showing a lack of interest; hospitality is honored by inviting in those who come to your door. For refugees unused to the daily barrage of sales solicitations, telemarketers, missionaries, and charitable organizations to which Americans have become accustomed, fending off unwanted callers is a unique challenge. Likewise, it is sometimes difficult for new immigrants to distinguish important letters sent by social services, the doctor, or the telephone company from advertisements demanding an immediate reply. Often, becoming more American means learning to say "no."
While learning the system and looking for work, many recent arrivals also deal with health problems resulting from previous poor medical care and malnutrition, a change in diet and difficulty preparing American foods, and maximized stress. The pressure to become self-supporting as soon as possible is immense, but sometimes not all adults in a family have the skills, English fluency, or child care to begin work right away.
When Rusena's family arrived last August, her father, Bulat Pirko Resic, was the only English-speaking member of the family. It is he who still does all the grocery shopping, who must be present for every doctor's appointment and visit to social services. While working full time at a metal-finishing company in Harford Country and advancing his own education beyond the seventh grade, he is dedicated to finding his wife, Krisi, day care so that she can begin the long process of learning English. At present, Krisi rarely leaves the house. In hopes of addressing this problem, the International Rescue Committee recently won a $150,000 grant to run a program for African and Middle-Eastern women and youth that will provide education to increase their self-reliance and help them become leaders in their communities.
The Salls were lucky to have four adults in their family able to work and find jobs. Abou Sall admits to a "grand nostalgie, bien sur"--of course he misses his home. But he is not interested in deciding which country he prefers, and the way such questions ignore a political reality of little choice. He responds, "C'est une question d'adaptatiôn," conveying a pragmatic philosophy, but also the survivor mentality that often characterizes refugees.
In many ways, the Salls' life is easier now. Aissata, the oldest sibling at 23, rattles off enjoyed luxuries: electricity, air conditioning, television, pizza, hamburgers, apples. At the same time, the family works long hours and struggles to fit in time at school desperately needed to improve their options. Aissata, her 20-year-old brother Mamadou, and their parents must each take two forms of public transportation to get to work; their commutes average more than an hour, if things run smoothly.
Aissata, with long braids, an earring dangling fashionably high on her ear, and a striking smile, seems ready to join the ranks of popular college students. At the moment, she is busy going to English-as-a-second-language (ESOL) classes at Baltimore City Community College in the morning before working the 4 p.m.-12 a.m. shift at a glass factory. She plans to enroll in a nursing program in a year, after her already-impressive English improves. She doesn't have a lot of friends, she says, but recently enjoyed going out for Ethiopian food with Valencia, who visits as many as five families every two weeks, and whom many newcomers see as a godsend. Aissata explains her lack of a social life as well as her family's low profile during their free time, saying "on n'a pas le temps to make fun--if you have a day off, you rest."
Abou and his wife, Rameta's own ESOL classes have been interrupted by work for the time being. Rameta, though strikingly dressed in a printed gown and head tie, looks tired, even on Saturday, her day off from servicing linens at a hospital supply company. Having taught Pular in Mauritania, she also speaks Wolof, French, and Arabic. Yet four languages are not enough, and she berates herself for not being fluent in English. "You need school," she says wryly, drawing her hand to her mouth as if taking in sustenance. But then she shrugs: "Work is trés dure--very hard. I need some change."
Although she is talking about her job, the Salls would also like to change their house for something bigger than a two-bedroom rowhouse. And, although they have been here for almost two years, they have mixed feelings about the neighborhood. As Muslims, they laugh when asked if there is a mosque nearby. The distance to the nearest one would make visits rare, even if the Salls did have a car. And although there used to be two other Mauritanian families in the neighborhood, they have moved to Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore, to live in an area "plus calme" as the Salls put it.
Drugs are a serious problem on their street, but the Salls' greatest frustrations lie with neighbors who can sometimes be "very bad if you don't speak English," Aissata says. Heuleye and Aissata argue about whether they hear the line "I don't like African people" coming more from black or white Americans. Josephine Valencia indignantly relates that other African refugees have been told by African-Americans that their ancestors must have profited from the slave trade if they stayed in Africa: "Themselves being victimized, it's horrible to hear this . . . they've come through so much."
Like any neighborhood, there are also those who lend a helping hand. Refugees are often welcomed by neighbors bringing donations of clothing and toys, offering friendly advice, or just a kind hello.
At one point, a small white girl from across the street knocks to ask if Hawa can play. Although Abou and Rameta Sall mostly socialize with their Gambian and Congolese friends living nearby, "les enfants" have American friends who often visit. Abou smiles ruefully at the way his kids have picked up English. Rameta is jealous and very proud: "It is easy for them."
Refugees such as the Salls may have mixed feelings about their neighborhood, but some of their neighbors see foreign newcomers as essential for the area's future. Amy Menzer, president of the Baltimore Linwood Neighborhood Association, believes the presence of refugees increases the area's marketability as a whole. To the color-divided, drug-infested, often unkempt streets of Southeast Baltimore (new arrivals can't afford more gentrified blocks), refugee families bring histories that reach outside of the city's black/white past. They offer stability, are driven by an intense desire to work and succeed, and often practice a level of hospitality and gratitude that most Americans would find extreme. In every case, they are survivors, pre-screened by war and numerous humanitarian organizations; they are among the 70,000 or so refugees given entry to the United States each year from the estimated 14 million refugees worldwide.
Menzer is enthusiastic about refugees' impact on Baltimore Linwood and says, "The diversity is great!" She also sees obstacles, however: "The challenge for us is making them feel at home and welcome, and seeking to integrate them." At a time when ongoing long-term population loss is so great that Baltimore is "hemorrhaging people," in the words of Martin Ford, assistant director of the Maryland Office for New Americans, the city isn't making much of an effort to keep its refugees. Many of them, once they are able to work and save some money, follow the paths well-worn by many Baltimoreans before them: They leave.
While Montgomery and Prince George's counties combined attracted around 156,000 foreign-born immigrants from 1990-2000, according to Maryland Department of Planning statistics, Baltimore City ranked fourth statewide, gaining a paltry 14,000 people over 10 years. Ford calls Baltimore a "minor player" in the bid to attract foreign-born immigrants, a label that, in 2000, described almost one in 10 Marylanders.
Prince George's, Montgomery, and even Baltimore counties are cashing in on what is becoming an American trend. As Sun columnist Jay Hancock pointed out in an April 28 column, cities such as Chicago and Minneapolis attribute their recent population resurgences largely to foreign immigration. According to a May 11 article in The Seattle Times, one in four current citizens of the small city of Tukwila, Wa. was born outside the United States, up from one in 14 in 1990. Even largely rural Midwestern states are proposing ways to get on the bandwagon; in 2001, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack introduced a initiative to replace declining population with "New Iowans" from abroad.
The Rev. Cheng Imm Tan, director of the Mayor's Office of New Bostonians, credits 80 percent of the growth in Massachusetts' labor force over the past 10 years to immigration. Many of Tan's efforts to encourage the influx are outlined in Boston's 27-page Guide to City Services, which is aimed at foreign-born residents. Tan's office provides extensive translation services and information on everything from starting a business to finding an English class to holding a cultural event. She cites Boston Mayor Thomas Menino as having the "foresight and leadership" to realize "the national trend that economic growth in the future will continue to come not from America's aging natives, but from newcomers. Nationally, immigrants contribute much more in taxes than they take. From our experience, [they] have made a huge contribution, a key source of economic growth to the city and state."
Only two blocks away from the Sall family, Fahira Milonovic (pronounced "mi-la-no-vitch") opens the door and invites her "second son" inside. Brenden Butler is a Vista Volunteer for the Red Cross, and a family favorite. Fahira's real son, backward-baseball-cap-wearing 18-year-old Igor, greets Butler with an elaborate riff on the regular handshake. The phone rings, summoning Igor, as it often does; he returns later evincing sighing frustration over 16-year-old girls who keep calling to convince him and his friend Edin to come over: "Even though they are 15, 16, there is stuff they don't get." His English is slang-smooth, and tonight he plays a harassed heartthrob who accepts teasing from Butler about his "girlfriend" on the phone.
Meanwhile, Igor's 5-year-old brother Ivica (pronounced "ee-veet-za") has a shy attack and stares silently while playing with his cowboy and Indian figures, toys bought in Europe. His reticence before strangers wears off, though, and he soon perches beside Butler, shouting as his favorite cartoon comes on television: "There's Dexter in his lab!"
Though he prefers to slip into Serbo-Croatian at times, Ivica's English is fluent; he's been learning his shapes and numbers from the Disney Channel. Later, he leads Butler downstairs to show off his bike--no training wheels for him. His prodigious cycling skills come from having grown up in the Netherlands, where at times he claims to have been born, forgetting his Serbian beginnings.
While Ivica monopolizes Butler 's attention, Fahira and her husband, Mile, share their story. Fahira apologizes for serving Keebler cookies and not homemade, as she has just worked 12 hours in the kitchen at the Marriott Hotel on Eutaw Street. Forty-seven, she is small and elegant with a dark chin-length bob. She is incredibly energetic at the end of a long day. It is easy to see why she is popular among her co-workers, whom she insists call her "Auntie."
Mile, 48, provides a contrast, being solidly built with fair, even ruddy skin and blond hair. He was an economic manager in Bosnia, working for a large company doing imports and exports. Now he laughs at the irony of being back at construction, something he used to do with his father 25 years ago, when he was a young student.
Fahira is Muslim and Mile Orthodox Christian, a combination that used to be common but is no longer encouraged in the divided former Yugoslavia. Most professionals have left the ravaged area, and Fahira's five siblings are scattered across Europe in Austria and France. One sister remains in Bosnia as a humanitarian aid worker, attempting to salvage what remains.
The Milonovics' life as refugees began in April 1992, when they left Bosnia to avoid joining sides in the ethnic-based war, dreading the possibility of Mile and Fahira's brothers fighting against each other. They packed their car with only a few personal items and drove to Serbia, where they lived with Mile's parents. They were safe for six years before war found them again in 1998, when Ivica was less than a year old. Chased by the sight of burning villages and the sound of gunfire, they made the 20-hour drive to Arnhem, the Netherlands, and began the long process of applying for asylum.
Igor apologizes for not wanting to discuss that part of his life. The memories are painful. "If we talk about the past, we talk only of nice things," Fahira says.
After making it across the Dutch border, the family lived in one room for four months at a center for about 800 refugees. Afterward, they were given a small house in Arnhem and allowed to attend school, learn Dutch, and make a new beginning.
Fahira gets out a photo album, displaying the life they built over four years in the Netherlands. It's an idyllic European scene: good social services, strict recycling, a house near the park with a sports center for Igor and a petting zoo for Ivica. A friendly Dutch village by the sea celebrated its rainbow of refugees with holidays in their honor.
Yet the Milonovics couldn't become citizens or work. Fahira went to school to get her teaching certificate and volunteered as a kindergarten teacher for two years while Mile volunteered at a bicycle repair shop. The uncertainty of how long they would be able to stay and the desire to begin planning a future for their children goaded the Milonovics to begin the long, arduous application and screening process to gain asylum in the United States (one of the rare nations willing to provide refugees permanent resettlement and the chance to become full-fledged citizens). Eventually, the IRC brought the family to Baltimore's east side.
Though she still finds the trash-lined streets shocking, Fahira likes her small rowhouse and its closeness to Patterson Park. But security remains a problem. Fahira attributes her 10-pound weight loss (not a small amount on a petite woman) to lack of sleep and worrying during her family's first six months in their new neighborhood. Before the drug-dealing residents of the house next door were evicted two weeks ago, the Milonovics stoop was a hangout for customers who sometimes rang the wrong doorbell, tapped on the window, or were loud way after midnight.
The neighborhood drug trade also drives prostitution on nearby Baltimore Street. Fahira is fortunate to work downtown and only have a 15-minute commute, but she has to deal with cruising cars trying to pick her up while she waits for the bus at 5 a.m.
Michele Granruth, owner of Patterson Park Rental Services, contracted by the Patterson Park Community Development Corp. to handle local rental properties, acknowledges that Fahira's street is a bad one; Granruth says she had been working for some time to have the drug den next door to the Milonovics shut down. Working determinedly, "one street at a time," Granruth is passionate about protecting families' rights to be safe where they live. She plans to replace the evicted tenants with people who work for her. If so, Fahira will have help sweeping up trash.
For now, Fahira remains committed to the neighborhood. She has voiced her complaints at community meetings, she brings toys and clothes to refugee children on her block, and she reaches out to neighbors like Miss Betty, the 72-year-old native Baltimorean living by herself two doors down. But Fahira has watched many other Bosnians leave. Twenty families within a five-block radius, including six families on her own street, have moved in the past year to smaller apartments in Dundalk or Towson in search of quieter streets and better schools for their children. While Ivica misses his Bosnian playmates, Fahira worries that refugee kids in Dundalk will have a long commute to ESOL classes and that the neighborhood is losing out too. "For city of Baltimore, it is bad if people from my country move," she says.
Despite this setback to what was developing as a Bosnian community on the east side, Fahira remains strongly upbeat and shrugs her shoulders at any other possibility: "I must, I must be optimistic--for myself and for my children." Determined to start a new life, she and her husband accept with equanimity that their new jobs are below their abilities. Though they obviously value the excellent conditions for refugees in the Netherlands, Fahira brushes unhealthy comparisons back over her left shoulder where they belong. "That is for remember," she says, implying that realism is needed now.
Although Fahira and Mile came to the United States in September 2001 with a high level of education and Igor spoke fluent English, their first months adjusting were still extremely stressful, as is the case for the majority of refugee families. While the Milonovics arrived in better physical condition than most, Mile developed a hernia that required an operation in January, and Fahira had a cancerous lump removed from her breast soon after.
Fahira's manager at the Marriott, Lupe Rodriguez, was accommodating when arm pain after cancer surgery made it difficult for Fahira to continue her job in housekeeping. Rodriguez retrained her, moved her to the kitchen, and continues to impress her employee by picking up bits of Serbo-Croatian. The transfer to a new position was successful: Fahira shows off a framed picture announcing that she is employee of the month for May.
The considerate atmosphere at the Marriott is rare. Although many refugees are model employees--responsible, ambitious, and saving to send earnings to relatives--employers often don't have the sensitivity or patience to hire and train workers unfamiliar with American customs. Although a capable factory worker for many months after arriving in Baltimore, when Bulat Resic tried to get a new job on an assembly line closer to home, he was fired after only two-and-a-half days for what his manager called "cultural issues." For now, he has returned to his old job, with its long commute and heavy lifting.
The Milonovics' situation is, for the meantime, secure. Fahira is already thinking about how to get Igor college scholarships during his final year at Patterson High. The family just bought a used car and hopes to save enough money to move wherever their son goes to college--most likely away from Baltimore.
The connection between immigrants and revitalization has already been made by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has recorded radio advertisements that attempt to lure Spanish speakers from Washington and its suburbs. According to Maryland Department of Planning statistics, Baltimore gained 3,459 Hispanic residents between the 1990 and 2000 censuses. Currently, there are enough Latino stores, restaurants, and community organizations popping up around East Baltimore to put this population on the cultural radar screen, in turn increasing the number of businesses and services catering to them. If 3,500 represents some kind of magic number of ethnic-group members needed for a particular culture to make an economic impact in the city and Baltimore managed to increase the flow of and retain more of the African and European immigrants arriving every year, these new populations could achieve similar visibility in less than a decade.
At present, however, the Mayor's Office has no particular plan to reach out to refugees. Deputy Mayor Schwartz notes that they are waiting for the final draft of a study done by Bruce Morrison for the Abell Foundation on immigration and revitalization. Morrison, a former congressperson from Connecticut, chaired an immigration subcommittee for the House Judiciary Committee. "One of the keys to being a prosperous city is having a diverse population," Schwartz says, but adds that until that report is ready in mid-September, "it would be premature" to talk about specific policies. Still, she acknowledges that she looks for the Morrison report to "identify specific populations that Baltimore would have a better chance of capturing than others."
Attracting refugees is one thing; persuading refugees to stay, though, requires a greater effort. Small-business programming; cultural training for police and other officials, employers, and schools; a volunteer corps of translators; offering help for new renters and home buyers; assessing whether there is adequate ESOL and adult education available; creating more community liaisons--all these steps would make refugees feel more welcome and prepare Baltimore to attract more immigrants--"the people who built Baltimore in the last century," Morrison points out.
Although the Mayor's Office is not closely connected with the International Rescue Committee or the Baltimore Resettlement Center, Patterson Park Community Development Corp. executive director Ed Rutkowski is. Sipping a caffeine-free Diet Coke in the still-homey living room of the Patterson Park CDC's converted-rowhouse office, Rutkowski sports a green Baltimore Linwood Association T-shirt and a brisk tell-it-like-it-is manner. Previously a computer-system developer for IBM and United Parcel Service, Rutkowski became head of the Patterson Park CDC in 1996, a low point in the neighborhood's history when real-estate flipping schemes, mortgage fraud, absentee landlords, and mismanagement of Section 8 housing had made many blocks vulnerable to becoming abandoned, foreclosed, and overrun with drugs.
When asked about the relationship between refugees and revitalization, Rutkowski says, "The connection's clear." He cites the case of 3,500 Bosnians "saving" Utica, N.Y., four years ago, after that city had suffered years of population loss. The refugees are credited by former Utica Mayor Ed Hannah and local business leaders for improving the economy by providing labor and opening businesses, buying and restoring homes that were once unmarketable, and bringing vibrancy and hope to ailing neighborhoods.
The Patterson Park CDC is in the business of buying up, rehabbing, selling, and renting local properties in hopes of turning the neighborhood's fortunes around. Interested in renting to immigrants from the very beginning, the Patterson Park CDC talked to the Maryland Office for New Americans and found out they were looking for a place on Eastern Avenue to open up a resettlement center. When the Maryland Office for New Americans reported being told there was no place to rent, Rutkowski suggested they "look again." The Baltimore Resettlement Center opened on the corner of Conkling and Eastern in 1999, and, although some community leaders are rumored to be unhappy with its presence, Rutkowski points to the empty storefronts nearby and shrugs at the pointlessness of not using the space.
Despite his graying hair, glasses, and penchant for careful analysis, Rutkowski sounds passionate as he speaks about his goals to "keep houses out of the hands of bad guys" and "stop the bleeding" of people out of the neighborhood. Rutkowski identifies the neighborhood's biggest problem as incompetent and irresponsible absentee owners who have little stake in the area and against whom there is little recourse if properties are rented to bad neighbors or are not maintained. "If we imagine bad tenants are problems, you've got nobody to go to if you have a bad home owner," he says.
Renting to refugees is right in line with Rutkowski's goal of placing homes in the hands of good neighbors: "They've added a level of stability and diversity; on our blocks, the response [from residents] has been, 'Bring us more.'"
Many refugee families have saved their money and eventually moved away from the neighborhood, however, and the numbers of new immigrants has been down since Sept. 11. At one point, two-thirds of Rutkowski's renters were refugees. Now, the Patterson Park Rental Service puts the figure at about 30 percent. Although he is extremely cautious about generalizing, Rutkowski notes that "six months ago we had virtually no tenant problems. Now we have half a dozen." One possible explanation is the decrease in refugee rentals.
"It's something we're trying to get a handle on--we're trying to get them to stay," he says. Hiring a new intern to reach out to members of the refugee community and ask questions about why they're leaving is one step. The Patterson Park CDC also sponsors the Lazarus Center for New Americans, a new information resource facility facing Library Square on Pulaski Highway.
Currently, the bedraggled triangle of grass in the square isn't entirely trash free. There's a variety store, a couple of limited groceries and further down the block, a furniture store where the same used exercise equipment beckons week after week. It's the daydream of many local activists, including Thom Kolton, who runs the Lazarus Center, to have the grass in front of the library become a focal point for surrounding businesses run by former refugees, "stores that offer products we don't sell."
The envisioned Library Square is vibrant and boasts people driving in from all over the area to sample African stew at a restaurant, drink coffee at a Bosnian café, or buy exotic groceries now found only in Washington's Adams Morgan neighborhood. Kolton tells the story of a fledgling Congolese businessperson whose English is not that good, but who brought him over to her house to show him a royal orange African suit she had imported to sell. Of the 30 suits she originally bought, only four remain unsold. They hang on the wall of the Lazarus Center, gorgeous flags of color, symbolizing the fruitful meeting of Africa and Baltimore.
For now, the Lazarus Center offers people like that Congolese businessperson ESOL and computer classes, networking opportunities, and, soon, access to a database featuring information about education, jobs, and more. The center is open to the public, available for all residents in need, but its main focus remains giving immigrants the tools they need to prosper and make the city their home.
Of course, that's only if they quit moving to Towson. "The flow [of refugees] from Bosnia is stopping, we missed the wave there," Rutkowski says; he stresses the need for a "critical mass" of refugees sharing the same nationality, enough to support specialty businesses. Bruce Morrison, author of the Abell Foundation report, agrees that "the best thing for Baltimore to do is to try and specialize," possibly by negotiating with the State Department or other agencies to bring in more refugees of one or two particular nationalities.
Among the refugee population, information often travels by word of mouth. Refugees move to places where they have relatives, where others from their country advise them to go. If Baltimore could become a permanent home for people who are placed here, ethnic communities would become self-generating.
Currently, the east side is a place where, on a Saturday night, you can attend a Congolese dinner and dance party or listen to Malagasy music at the Creative Alliance. You can stumble across children of different nationalities playing together at Patterson Park. Still, much of what refugees bring to Baltimore remains hidden.
Just as Rusena's mischievous dance steps--part Sudan, part Baltimore--remain unseen by teachers at her school, so other new combinations of foreign and American culture generally emerge behind closed rowhouse doors. The Salls' graciousness and determination to succeed never became an organizing force on their block; the family recently moved to a four-bedroom home on McMencken Street, near other Mauritanian families already settled on the west side. Fahira Milonovic's talent with children reaches a dwindling number of Ivica's nearby friends. Whether refugees will become an integral part of the new East Baltimore depends upon whether the hidden abilities and experiences refugees bring with them are supported and celebrated.
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