Saturday, November 21, 2009

For African Immigrants, Bronx Culture Clash Turns Violent

October 20, 2009

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.

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.

In the community district that includes Claremont, black Americans made up 44 percent of the population, according to 2000 census figures, with 52.9 percent of the area Hispanic. African immigrants were nearly 10 percent of the population, a number likely to be much higher in the 2010 census.

The Africans in Claremont hail mainly from poor, French-speaking countries: Guinea, Mali, Senegal. Like immigrants across New York, many are here illegally, working long hours for little pay. Many work as taxi drivers, convenience-store clerks, fast-food cashiers — jobs that keep them on the street late at night.

But some say the Muslims deliberately hold themselves apart. A 37-year-old American man who gave his name as Dre pointed to the pavement in front of the mosque where the African men, easily identifiable in their beards and skullcaps, gather each afternoon. “If you don’t give praise to Allah, don’t go there,” he said. “It’s just like Afghanistan.”

Kantara Baragi, the imam of the Al Tawba mosque, acknowledges that insularity is part of the problem. “We don’t hang around,” said Mr. Baragi, whose delicate frame nearly disappears inside his long, flowing robes. “We just go to work. We don’t have a relationship with people here. They don’t know us.”

So community leaders organized two meetings this summer with police officials, politicians, community board members and housing association leaders. The goal, Mr. Baragi said, was “to let them know us so they don’t look at us like strangers.”

Zain Abdullah, an assistant professor of religion, race and ethnicity at Temple University in Philadelphia, says it is common for African immigrants to suffer harassment when they settle in traditionally black neighborhoods in big cities, like Detroit, New York and Philadelphia.

“Many African-Americans feel that the influx of Africans coming in represents a kind of invasion,” he said. “Culturally, African-Americans have always imagined themselves as Africans, or at least of African descent, but they might have never encountered Africans from the continent. The actual encounter is shocking.”

Mr. Baragi, the imam, says he tries to accommodate his neighbors. His mosque, which blends in with the other storefronts, does not sound the call to prayer through speakers because “we don’t need to force everyone to hear what we’re doing.”

Instead, five times a day, from the sidewalk or, when it is cold, from behind the front door, a man from Al Tawba sings the call in a voice drowned out by the rumbling traffic.

Down the block at Café de C.E.D.E.A.O., a young man walked in last week wearing a Yankees hat tilted askew, an oversize military-style jacket and baggy pants. He looked like any member of the crowd hanging out in front of the Butler Houses, but Fofana Alhusane’s outfit was calculated, a camouflage to hide his Gambian roots.

“African clothes are dangerous,” he said. “I used to wear them, but I saw a few people get beat up, so now I wear New York clothes.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 21, 2009
An article on Tuesday about tensions between West African immigrants and black Americans in the Claremont neighborhood of the Bronx misidentified, in some copies, the primary language spoken in Gambia, one of the immigrants’ home countries. It is English, not French.

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