Karen Cox Miller seldom thought much about the growing presence of foreigners in the Alpha Garden and Alpha Village apartment complexes a couple of blocks west of her home near Hodiamont Avenue and Skinker Boulevard.
On Sunday, however, she decided to get to know some of the new arrivals by attending the neighborhood's first Amherst Park Concert for Unity, which sought to build better relations between African Americans like herself and immigrants.
"It's time for something like this," she said. "But wouldn't it be even more impressive if more people from the entire community had attended?"
The concert's organizer, Cecilia Nadal, head of Gitana Productions, was pleased just to get people from the immediate neighborhood to show up. But she hopes Sunday's event will mark the start of a "public engagement" between blacks and immigrants. It's needed, she says, because both groups have suffered from discrimination that has influenced their perceptions of one another. Blacks, she says, feel the new arrivals are trying to take over the neighborhood, while many immigrants perceive blacks as criminals and shun them out of fear of being attacked. Nadal thinks Gitana's program will help address the misperceptions.
The idea of a unity concert actually stemmed from a tragedy. In June, Sahele Wodede, a 15-year-old Eritrean refugee, was slain in an incident still being investigated by police. No suspects have been apprehended, and it isn't yet clear whether the youth was the victim of a drive-by shooting or some other crime.
Wodede and his family, who relocated to St. Louis in 2007, were among refugees that the International Institute of St. Louis settled in the Alpha Garden and Alpha Village complexes because the rent is affordable and some of the apartments have as many as four bedrooms. His mother, citing fear of crime, later moved the family out of the complex. Wodede was visiting a friend when he was shot.
In any case, aside from some African-American tenants, the complexes are now home to refugees from Burundi, Iraq, Mexico, Nepal and Somalia, among other countries. Until the shooting, most St. Louisans probably weren't aware that many refugees had settled in the North Side neighborhood. Nor, perhaps, were they aware of the mild tension that has developed between blacks and immigrants in the neighborhood.
Dialogue and social interaction are the key to easing the friction, Nadal believes, citing the concert as a good starting point.
"Nothing like this has ever been tried in this neighborhood," she says. She was encouraged by Sunday's turnout, estimating that in the course of the afternoon, as many as 300 people dropped by, some of them briefly, to enjoy the event, enlivened by stilt walkers and poets, dancers and musicians representing diverse cultural experiences.
"The purpose was to bring together immigrants who live on one side of the park and African Americans who live on the other side," Nadal says. "They were very much involved with each other today. We formed a unity circle. We want to keep this dialogue going and help people establish personal relationships."
Nadal, meanwhile, says outsiders need to avoid making generalizations that can make immigrants mistrust and fear all blacks. She mentions a 3-year-old Gitana survey showing that some immigrants had negative perceptions of black St. Louisans without knowing any. Based on what they are taught, immigrants tend to believe certain neighborhoods are unsafe and aren't given the "nuances" to understand that "there are also good people in those neighborhoods," Nadal says.
Although black residents like Miller tend to be tolerant of the immigrants, she says it never occurred to her to mingle with them because of habit and cultural and language differences. Still others don't appear to be so understanding, and their attitudes suggest that more dialogue and a healing are needed.
That much was apparent one afternoon last week when about a half dozen African Americans, some of them tenants from Alpha Village apartments, gathered under a tree on the property after a reporter approached them. Rather than be interviewed, they listened as one of their fellow tenants, a stout woman whose tone and temper matched the late August heat, held court. A few seemed dazed. Underneath one lawn chair was an empty liquor bottle. The woman refused to give her name, saying she will soon move out of the complex because of disputes with some of the immigrants.
"They've come in our neighborhood, and they're treated better than us," she charged. "I had to beat up one (immigrant) because I didn't like the way she was treating children around here."
The woman then looked down Hodiamont Avenue and caught sight of Ameen Bajwa, head of the company that owns Alpha Village. She criticized him for, among other things, insisting that tenants not loiter outside the buildings.
Bajwa and Mohammad Rehman, head of the company that owns Alpha Gardens, say they feel unappreciated for the hard work they say they have done to improve public perceptions and the decline of the complexes, which now house about 200 families, most of them immigrants.
"We have brought the buildings back to life and many people look at us as if we have done something wrong," Bajwa says.
At one time, Rehman said, police used to record about 350 calls a month to the complexes. Nowadays, he says the numbers have dropped by about 80 percent and usually involve property crimes, such as car thefts.
"We got rid of the tenants involved in illegal activities," Bajwa says. "We have done better screening so that we can have diversity and a good mix of people. You don't see the drug dealers hanging out in this community now. Most people who stay here are working or going to school."
Bajwa says he came here from his native Pakistan for the same reasons many others choose to resettle in the United States.
"More business and educational opportunities," he says. "If you are a hard worker with abilities, you'll step up the ladder."
He predicted that events like Sunday's concert would be a natural vehicle for bringing people together.
"Think about Michael Jackson," he says. "When he died, there was mourning all over the world. Emotions are aroused when people listen to good music."
Mohamed and Badil Habiba were refugees in Kenya for 18 years.
In general, the refugees seem pleased with the condition of the complexes. But that may have to do with the fact that they have been deprived of decent housing for long periods. Somali couples like Mohamed and Badil Habiba, for example, spent years as refugees before resettling in the United States. He does maintenance work, and she is seeking employment.
"We were refugees for 18 years in Kenya," Badil Habiba says. "Life was too hard, there was nothing to do, no school for our children, no hope for the future. But here we have a home, we have (electric) lights, a telephone. I can go where I want to go. In Kenya, you couldn't walk anywhere outside the refugee camp. This place (apartment) is so nice. We thank the government of America so much."
Like some other immigrants, she seems to think less about her current situation than about a brighter future for her four children.
"It's important to me that they get a good education and help people," she says. "I want them to grow up and become doctors."
Not everybody who wanted to entertain at Sunday's event got the chance to do so. Elizabeth Morales, of south St. Louis, had intended to perform traditional dances from Mexico. But her act at the Festival of Nations in Tower Grove Park caused her to arrive too late at the unity concert. She sounded a little disappointed.
"I wanted to get everybody out there to work up a step, and I wanted them to have a lot of fun and a good time dancing along with me."
She'll have other opportunities, because Nadal says Sunday's event definitely won't be the last effort to use music, drama and dance to unify the neighborhood.
This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.