Tensions have increased at a Roanoke apartment complex.
By Rob Johnson
The small barren courtyard that separates the apartment buildings of Dwan Dillard and Mohamed Adin in Northwest Roanoke might as well be an ocean, so deep is the dislike that the American-born black woman and the Somali Bantu refugee have of each other.
"That out there is a war zone," said Dillard, whose four children live with her at Maple Grove Apartments, a blighted complex of four buildings with a total of 40 units on Pilot Street near Melrose Avenue. "The African children attack ours. They throw rocks."
Adin, who lives with his wife and nine children, blames "the Americans." Through an interpreter he said, "Day and night they throw rocks at our building. They yell at us. We are afraid. This isn't what we came to this country for."
Graffiti on the Maple Grove Apartments street sign read "Americans only," and "Africans not welcome."
The Catholic Diocese of Richmond's Refugee and Immigration Services office in Roanoke has been placing families from Africa and other countries in area apartments for years, with low rents being a key factor in settling them.
Maple Grove has been a favored destination for refugees from Somalia and other African nations since 2003, said Beth Lutjen, the agency's director. "They have become a community here," she said, walking around the complex Monday after receiving several complaints from her clients. "But now the tensions between the Africans and the American blacks have reached a crisis point."
Lutjen began searching for apartments elsewhere in Roanoke for the African refugees earlier this month, after Adin and other immigrants complained about the rock throwing and alleged that some of their children have been beaten by black American kids while waiting for the bus to nearby Westside Elementary School.
On Monday, the Africans kept 16 of their children home from Westside, Adin said. "We were afraid to let them go outside."
Most of the children returned to school Tuesday.
Police seek solution to residents' complaints
On Wednesday night, Amy Nasta, the coordinator of Virginia Tech's Pilot Street Program, a nonprofit refugee education program that rents a unit at Maple Grove Apartments as classroom space, said she called an ambulance to treat a refugee who said she had been roughed up by an American-born neighbor. "She was seven months pregnant," said Nasta, who said the woman alleged she was injured when the neighbor barged into her apartment looking for his child's missing soccer ball.
Nasta declined to identify the victim, fearing for her safety, as did a spokesperson at Lewis-Gale Medical Center. Her condition couldn't be learned on Wednesday.
Nasta said she also reported the incident to Roanoke police. Aisha Johnson, a police spokeswoman, said an officer recorded the matter as an assault but no arrests have been made.
Police records show 17 requests for their presence at the apartment complex in March, but it isn't clear how many were related directly to the tension among residents. Lutjen said the police community resource officer in the area has scheduled a meeting with her on Friday to discuss a possible solution to the tensions.
Lutjen said she fears more violence and so do some residents.
"I have a gun. If they hurt my kids, I'll use it," said Tricia Arrington, an American-born black woman with five children. Interviewed Monday outside her apartment, she said, "My 9-year-old daughter came in from riding the school bus with those Africans and they had spit all over her face. I ain't about to let them keep doing that."
The troubled atmosphere at Maple Grove Apartments has become too much for Nasta to continue her program there beyond the expiration of her lease at the end of May. "We're going to relocate because of the violence," she said.
Hostilities between black Americans and African refugees aren't new or unique to Roanoke, said Carl Taylor, a sociologist at Michigan State University who studies youth violence. "There's a lot of ignorance on both sides about the different cultures."
For several years the American blacks and the Africans -- many of whom have started the lengthy citizenship application process -- lived in harmony at Maple Grove Apartments, both groups said. Several new American-born families have moved in since the beginning of the year, when the troubles began, but no one is accusing specific families or individuals.
Apartments' condition contributes to stress
A contributing factor of late is the worsening physical conditions of some apartments and the public laundry room. Roanoke city code enforcement officials have cited four apartments as needing repairs since March 19, and one was condemned and ordered vacated.
The owner, Dr. George Abraham, a Roanoke allergist who has a private practice at 1117 S. Jefferson St., met and spoke with The Roanoke Times but declined to comment on the record about either the condition of the apartments or the rift among his tenants. Abraham immigrated to the U.S. from Egypt three decades ago and has owned Maple Grove Apartments for five years.
Lutjen said Abraham "hasn't been very helpful" in responding to complaints about maintenance of the apartments, including one potential health hazard: the ample presence of mold in several units. "You might think an allergist would show more concern about large amounts of mold in apartments he's renting, especially to people with children," she said.
For those sensitive to molds, prolonged exposure can cause eye irritation, nasal stuffiness and wheezing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. More severe reactions are possible in people with allergies or asthma. Abraham declined to comment on the presence of mold in the apartments when asked by The Roanoke Times.
The mold in one apartment was cited in March by Troy Coles, a city code inspector. That mold, growing on a bathroom wall, can't be kept under control merely with extra cleaning by the resident, he said, blaming drywall that has been saturated with water -- possibly from a roof leak. "Some of the drywall has to be replaced," he said.
Another factor angering both the Americans and the refugees is that Abraham recently raised rents on many apartments -- which residents said range from $425 to $550 a month. The $25 per month increase is partly to pay for damage such as broken windows caused by thrown rocks, the residents said. "But we aren't the ones throwing the rocks, it's the Africans," Dillard said.
Abraham declined to comment on the rent increase.
Tracy Reyes, one of the few whites living at Maple Grove Apartments, said she sees the causes for anger among both groups. "Everybody just needs to calm down. This is America; there's supposed to be a place for all of us."
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