Amid death and gentrification, Denver refugees have had a tough year

"Where do people who are just barely making it go? How about these people who we promised a chance at the American dream?"

The Denver Post
By Bruce Finley

DENVER — For a collective of refugees who fled trouble abroad and are fighting to fit into Denver, mean streets turned meaner this past year.

At least four members of a refugee self-help group called Street Fraternity died from car wrecks and guns in 2019. The Street Frat soccer team got booted from an indoor league. Rising rents and urban renewal — the City Council recently designated an east Denver area where refugees are resettled as "blighted" to hasten a high-density overhaul —- raised economic pressure on refugee families.

"Denver is becoming more of an elite city where poor people don't have a place," said Amadou Bility, a Street Frat co-founder born in Liberia and one of the four paid staffers.

The United States' spirit of assimilating newcomers seems to have soured, Bility said. "We see social media. We see the mean statements coming from leaders of this country. One way or another, it affects you."

Denver and other American cities historically have offered immigrants an upward path. Federal census data shows 15% of Denver residents and 19% in adjacent Aurora are foreign-born — higher than the 13.6% nationwide. But the relatively small subset of immigrants who are refugees — people who fled persecution in Africa, Asia and Central America and were legally admitted into the United States — face an increasingly difficult environment.

U.S. public funding to help resettle refugees has dwindled as President Donald Trump's administration takes steps to reduce immigration, including the resettlement of refugees who fled for their lives.

The Trump administration recently slashed the national cap on refugee admissions to 18,000, the lowest on record, down from 85,000 under President Barack Obama and 230,000 in 1980. The number of new refugees arriving in Colorado decreased to 845 last year, state records show.

Meanwhile, conflict and climate change are uprooting more people. United Nations statistics show 25.9 million refugees worldwide, the most since World War II. UN leaders' warnings about an intensifying global crisis of forced displacement spurred the World Bank to announce, on Dec. 17, that $2.2 billion will be made available for refugees and communities that accept them for resettlement over the next three years.

In economically booming Denver, the rising rents and gentrification already have driven some refugee families away, according to directors of the Street Frat, which is run from a Disabled American Veterans basement between Xenia and Xanthia streets off East Colfax Avenue.

Yet the Street Frat endures as a hub that helps 40 or so young men and their families get by in one of metro Denver's toughest areas. City data shows that 48% of children in the East Colfax neighborhood live in poverty, and 80% of third-graders aren't up to par in their reading.

Four nights a week, these refugees, aged 14 to 25, meet in the basement to prepare meals, train in a makeshift gym, read in a library, play ping pong, handle school homework and job applications at computers, and sit silently in a room set aside for contemplation and prayer.

A worn patch of AstroTurf atop pavement beneath apartment blocks nearby gives athletes a small space for soccer.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock has dropped in and honored Street Frat directors with "My Brother's Keeper" awards. The U.S. State Department has sent foreign dignitaries for visits because they regard Street Frat as a model for heading off violent extremism.

Struggling to Make Ends Meet

But hard times loom.

"I just want to get a job," said Amisi Mbuyi, 27, whose mother and four siblings moved with him in 2017 to escape tensions in the Republic of Congo, where he graduated from high school.

A construction site accident left his right forefinger scarred and ended that job. Living at home with his mother became difficult due to her discomfort with his U.S.-born girlfriend, and living mostly on the streets with the girlfriend has exposed them to taunts. Mbuyi said he's been sleeping in a dilapidated laundromat lately, bundling up as much as possible to endure the cold.

A lot of us don't have a job. We stay in the streets," he said.

Street Frat directors have scrambled to meet needs. They began a fresh food giveaway on Thursdays, working with food rescue groups that collect fruits and vegetables. The idea is to help young men, who agree to a code of hard work, respect and obeying the law, by also helping their cash-strapped mothers.

At a recent giveaway, Muslim women who fled rural Myanmar, formerly Burma, to a UN refugee camp in Thailand — and who now in Denver lack transport to supermarkets — flocked to the cardboard boxes of potatoes and greens set out in a parking lot.

"Burma people like this food. It is very good for us," Ram Zambi said as small children ran around her and other women wearing bright-colored, sequined clothing from their native villages.

Zambi said her rent has increased three times over six years to $1,000 a month for a two-bedroom unit where she is raising a family of five. They've stayed in Denver in part for the schools, she said, and this free food helps make ends meet. Her 18-year-old daughter, Onaingsar, has earned high grades in high school and is talking about trying to attend college.

Street Frat volunteers are setting up a recording studio where members rap, dance and produce poetry. A recent talent show featured rap performers and included families. The directors also are looking for a therapist to help refugees who survived horrors abroad that left psychological scars.

And Street Frat members formed a soccer team, the Footballers, practicing on that patch of gray-green turf.

"Maybe they can make it bigger?" said Mwgngbatu Mulolemwenelokole, 16, an avid player whose Swahili-speaking family arrived via Tanzania three years ago.

More than two dozen teens participated. The directors registered the team in a league where games are played at an indoor sports facility in Denver's Stapleton neighborhood.

But when two car crashes last summer claimed the lives of three Street Frat members, including a key player, the Footballers missed a game. Another player, 23-year-old Omar Noor, was shot to death Sept. 15 near East Colfax and Valentia Street. (Denver police announced in October that Walter Watley, 23, was arrested in Kentucky on suspicion of first-degree murder and violation of a protection order in connection with this killing.)

When a coach couldn't show because he had to take his daughter to an emergency room, the team missed another scheduled game. A facility official in Stapleton kicked the refugees out of the league.

That had a huge impact. Now our guys don't have the one recreational thing that they looked forward to each week," said Bility, who has coordinated the soccer.

A boy who survived one of the two car crashes had been focusing on the soccer in dealing with grief, and his parents recently called saying he's struggling and they had to call police, he said.

Street Frat teens have been asking about finding another place to play. Transportation to suburban facilities is a challenge. Players juggle jobs and school with the soccer. Bility said he plans to contact facility owners and ask for fair treatment and to rejoin the league.

At a shrine made with rocks, soil and photos in their quiet room, the refugees light candles, honoring Street Frat members who died.

Days May Be Numbered

Each day brings struggles.

On a recent night, Bility and program coordinator Levon Lyles were doing all they could in a stairwell to stabilize a refugee from eastern Congo who lives on the streets and, not taking prescribed medications from a clinic in Aurora, has struggled mentally.

On another night, somebody stole a speaker for the recording studio, sending Lyles out on a foray along East Colfax trying unsuccessfully to retrieve it.

We give these guys information they need to survive. We feel responsible, like guardians," Lyles said. Meanwhile, America "is closing the doors to refugees, and that is very unfortunate. You're limiting the scope of who you could get to know — potential best friends."

Last spring, conflict between student groups at the New America School, a charter school for immigrants in Aurora, led to allegations someone had a gun. A student from Street Frat faced discipline. Street Frat director Yoal Ghebremeskel intervened at the school, trying to clear up misunderstandings, and ended up mediating the conflict between student factions.

"It is the little wins that can become big wins," Ghebremeskel said, preparing to escort a Street Frat member from Rwanda who graduated from high school and found a job to seek guidance from an immigration lawyer as he and his mother approach the date when they can apply to become U.S. citizens.

"But for the families we work with, it may be ever more difficult. We keep hearing from our young men that they're trying to find jobs so they'll be able to afford rent," he said. "We're seeing some folks move out."

Street Frat's days may be numbered. Denver council members in August voted 11-2, over the objections of a neighborhood association, to designate an 80-acre East Colfax area as "blighted," which accelerates funding and reviews to help developers to buy up, raze and reconstruct housing and shops.

The Street Frat has been relying on grants and donations to pay the $1,200 monthly rent to its Disabled American Veteran landlords. But the landlords recently were approached by developers, hearing possibilities for buying the building. All sides see potential benefits of renewal, though residents are skeptical of city promises that some apartments would remain affordable.

The city does have a push to get the crime off the streets and make the streets look nicer," building manager Russell Berget said. "But that doesn't mean we're going to throw out our tenants. They are refugees. Fine, good people. And our mission is to help our community."

A city-backed facilitator this month met with the refugees, seeking input for "improvements."

Street Frat co-founder Dave Stalls, a former NFL football player and city official who works as a chaplain at the University of Colorado Medical Center, questioned the meaning of improvement and the overall purpose. Then, checking in with the refugees in the basement as they practiced for their talent show, Stalls confided he sees the writing on the wall.

"This area's going to gentrify, like all of the city. Nobody's going to stand in the way of gentrification. Hope and vision? We've tried to offer some," he said. "Yes, the streets will be safer. But they will be so boring. So white. So gentrified. I mean, how many more brewpubs, chain coffee shops and cheap workout places do we need?"

"Where do people who are just barely making it go? How about these people who we promised a chance at the American dream? They're raising families, with cultures and languages that are so rich. What is going to replace them?"

(c)2020 The Denver Post

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2023 Gov1. All rights reserved.