For African Immigrants, Bronx Culture Clash Turns Violent

 

For African Immigrants, Bronx Culture Clash Turns Violent

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Nabi Niambele, gesturing, organized a meeting with police officials at Al Tawba mosque in Claremont to discuss hate crimes in the neighborhood. More Photos >

By SAM DOLNICK

The storefronts on a stretch of Webster Avenue in the South Bronx tell the story of local shifts as well as any census: a Senegalese-run 99-cent store, an African video store, an African-run fast-food spot, a mosque, several African restaurants.

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A Community StrugglesSlide Show

A Community Struggles

The owner of Café de C.E.D.E.A.O., named for the coalition of West African nations, envisioned it as a community hub in the Bronx neighborhood of Claremont, where Americans would try his wife’s cassava soup and realize it’s not so foreign after all. But a year in, the owner, Mohammed M. Barrie, said he could count the number of American patrons on one hand.

Meanwhile, he and his customers have been taunted, he said, and his restaurant’s window urinated on. Someone tried to break into a diner’s car. Then there is the bullet hole in the front window, a mark from a gunshot through the window late one night last summer.

“Those people, they don’t respect African people,” said Mr. Barrie, a Sierra Leone native who settled in the United States in 1998. “I pay my bills, I pay my taxes, they still …” He trailed off.

Down the block, Muhammed Sillah sat in front of the tiny Al Tawba mosque, eyeing the jungle gym across the street and remembering when he used to let his children play outside.

“Spanish kids, American kids — but no African kids,” said Mr. Sillah, a Gambian mechanic raising five children in Claremont. “We’re scared.”

Their fear and frustration are shared by many local West African immigrants, whose fast-growing presence in the neighborhood — and in the city over all — has been accompanied by increasing tensions with the local black American residents.

“They think they’re better than black people,” James Carroll, a retired Army specialist standing in front of a busy convenience store, said of the West African immigrants. “We’re supposed to be one community — we’re supposed to be able to get along — but they don’t give it a chance.”

Some of the tension can be attributed to cultural differences that all immigrants face, though the West Africans in Claremont, as conservative Muslims, have the added challenge of adjusting to a post-9/11 New York. But resentment and mistrust has escalated to actual violence, and, they say, left them feeling under siege.

After reports of nearly two dozen attacks on West African immigrants in the last two years, community leaders reached out to the police, who interviewed 17 Africans in the neighborhood and filed 11 criminal complaints. Two of those were deemed hate crimes, including an attack in June that left a Gambian immigrant hospitalized for eight days. They have made no arrest in either bias case, but a police mobile truck with a video camera now stands outside the mosque.

Claremont straddles the 44th and 42nd Precincts, two of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. This year, there have been 319 robberies in the 44th Precinct and 237 assaults in the 42nd. At the Butler Houses, part of a complex of housing projects that loom over the neighborhood, police sirens provide a background soundtrack, and residents of all colors and nationalities caution against walking around at night.

But the West Africans say the attacks on them are calculated. “It’s prejudice,” said Dembo Fofana, who said a beating in June by 10 to 15 men left him with broken ribs and internal bleeding. “It’s because we’re African, and we’re Muslim.”

Mr. Fofana, who came to this country 21 years ago, has not returned to his job at a bakery since the assault. He stays home, recovering, receiving disability checks and caring for his five children.

“There’s a lot of tension,” he said. “Just yesterday, someone said, ‘What would you think if I came to Africa and tried to take your property?’ I told him, ‘Brother, I’m not taking anything from you. I’m just trying to live my life.’ ”

The African population in the Bronx has grown considerably in recent years: the census reported 12,063 sub-Saharan Africans in 1990, while the most recent census estimate was 61,487.

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For African Immigrants, Bronx Culture Clash Turns Violent – NYTimes.com

 

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