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Wednesday, April 25,2012

'We need help. It's every day'

A grim season for a neighborhood of refugees in south Lansing who are the targets of ongoing vandalism, theft and physical intimidation. LPD: 'This is big as far as attention-wise right now.'

by Andy Balaskovitz

“You know what happens at Summer Place, right?” Sat Bo, 20, asks a woman customer of roughly his same age. Bo is manning the cash register at Bobo Market near the corner of Jolly and Waverly roads. It’s about 8 p.m. on Saturday. 

“Yes, yes,” replies the girl who, like Bo and his family, lives in Summer Place Townhomes across the street.

“See? Everybody knows,” Bo says.

Bo is a refugee from Burma and has lived in Summer Place Townhomes for about seven years. You can see his neighborhood from the cash register. He’s helped his mother manage the small market since it opened about four months ago, which sits in a small strip of businesses next to a shuttered Rite Aid in southwest Lansing.

But since November, Bo and his family haven’t been sleeping due to a combination of fear and duty — they take turns staying up all night to keep intruders away. Several other neighbors in Summer Place report similar situations.

“It’s been quiet, safe, secure,” Bo said, referring to the years leading up to November. Then he rattles off nearly daily instances when he and his neighborhood have been the target of a group of local teenagers, between 10 and 20 of them: car break-ins, “30-plus” broken windows, an old man getting punched in the face, a young woman “about my age kicked by those people,” theft.

So this is why you stand guard overnight. “Yeah, it’s very dangerous. We all worry. You gotta watch out and stay awake.”

Bo fears the worst: that the harassment will turn deadly. At one point, he armed himself with a pellet gun, which he said was subsequently taken by the Lansing Police Department. “We are not shooting for anything. I believe I’m doing the right thing. It’s like I’m security, protecting all people, not just the Burmese.”

As I walk through the neighborhood Saturday before meeting Bo, refugees from Iraq and Bhutan tell similar stories. 

Dozens of young children — from toddlers to teenagers — were playing in the street and courtyards. Adults gathered around, keeping an eye on them. The day before, the group came and broke a car window, said Ammar Mahdi, a 41-year-old refugee from Iraq. Mahdi’s English was broken and, at times, his 10-year-old son, Yousif, acted as a translator.

“We need help. It’s every day,” Mahdi said. “I am not sleeping.”

Attempts to reach the Summer Place property manager, Ray Neatfeld, were unsuccessful. A meeting was scheduled to take place at 7 p.m. Saturday with neighbors and City Council members, but Neatfeld canceled on Friday because he didn’t have a translator, At-Large Councilman Derrick Quinney said. Help from management has been scarce, Mahdi said: “It’s in this ear and outside the other.”

Devi Ghimisey is from Bhutan and about the same age as Mahdi. He lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for 18 years before coming to the U.S. three years ago.

“They come while we’re sleeping. Kids playing football — they come and beat them up. They come and throw rocks,” Ghimisey said.

Recently, the group stole Mohammed Mohahamed’s children’s three bikes. Two weeks ago, they broke his neighbor’s house windows. Mohahamed is 33 and also came from Iraq. “I want to change this trouble,” he said. “I want the street here safe.”

When asked why they thought this was happening, Mahdi, Bo, Ghimisey and Mohahamed all responded separately: “I don’t know.”

While this has been going on, arrests have been scarce. Though neighbors say the response from the Lansing Police Department has been inadequate, the department says it’s “very engaged and very aware of ongoing issues out there,” department spokesman Officer Robert Merritt said. 

“I’m very satisfied to know that our department is fully engaged and aware of any and all issues going on down there,” he said, adding that Capt. Mike Yankowski has authorized two “problem solving” tours of the area to get a more detailed report of what’s going on. “Once you make an arrest or show some presence, it’s a hell of a deterrent. ... This is big as far as attention-wise right now,” Merritt said.

Between Jan. 1 and April 16, LPD responded to 23 calls for service and filed 15 reports at Summer Place. They included stolen property, “trouble with a subject” and fights, Merritt said. The bulk of the reports, 11, occurred in March and eight of those were for damaged property. There were two in January, one in February and one in March, Merritt said. He added that three arrests have been made at the complex since Jan. 1, which occurred Saturday night on two adults and a juvenile after reports of a loud party and “trouble with subjects.” Merritt was unclear whether those arrested were Summer Place residents.

However, neighbors say they feel discouraged from calling the police because the trouble keeps happening — even after reports. “There might be some truth to that,” Merritt said, after describing the call volume as “not out of the ordinary.”

Alfonso Salas, who owns Lansing Athletics sporting goods store two doors down from Bobo Market, has seen the trouble unfold since it began. He contacted City Council members a few weeks ago for help.

“They target one duplex” at a time and “break all the windows,” Salas said. “I took it upon myself: This has got to stop. It’s uncalled for. A lot of us do care and need to help them.”

Neighbors say they’ve been trying to meet with Lansing teachers, and suggest the group is made up of Everett High School students. However, Everett Principal Howard Cousins had not heard of any of the incidents as of Monday afternoon. The Churchill Downs Community Association, whose boundaries include the Summer Place complex, also is not aware of the ongoing incidents, association President Kathy Tobe said Monday in an email. Merritt, of the LPD, said the data he has seen does not indicate who may be causing problems in the neighborhood. 

The Lansing City Council is holding a community meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday to look for solutions. The Bernero administration is also aware of the activities and is “working with Councilmember Quinney, as well as the management and residents at Summer Place, to bring all the right city resources to bear on resolving these issues,” Chief of Staff Randy Hannan said. “LPD has increased enforcement efforts in the area, and we are also working with Dr. Joan Jackson Johnson, Bishop Maxwell and the Refugee Development Center to address the unique language and cultural needs of the residents.” David Maxwell, a minister, is the director of the city’s Community and Faith-Based Initiatives office.

The LPD’s data also does not indicate whether residents are being targeted based on race or ethnicity, Merritt said, but he said it is possible due to the fact that human service and religious officials with the city are getting involved.

Salas, of Lansing Athletics, says that while it’s a rough neighborhood to begin with, he thinks it’s racially charged. And he warns that something needs to change, or “it’s gonna get bad.”

“Because of the color of their skin and who they are, they get beat up on,” he said. “I feel for them. We all have a responsibility to put a stop to this. It used to be a very, very fun place. It’s not right.”

Searching for solutions

Lansing City Council members and other city officials will host a community meeting with Summer Place residents to seek solutions to the ongoing problems at the neighborhood made up largely of refugees.

Thursday, 7 p.m.

Faith United Methodist Church

4301 S. Waverly Road, Lansing 


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