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Refugees find high risks on Squaw Island

Like most teenagers, Lah Aye believes that bad things only happen to someone else. That is what we are up against at Squaw Island Park.

Aye is 17. He came here from strife-torn Burma four years ago. He speaks English well enough to translate for other Burmese. His yellow high-top sneakers and lopsided baseball cap testify to his Americanization. Yet he has the deferential manner of a different culture.

I asked Aye whether he swims in Squaw Island's ponds -- one of which recently claimed the life of 9-year-old Joel Rama, an immigrant from Burundi. It was the second Squaw Island drowning in the last 13 months.

"Not in the small pond," Aye told me. "The water looks bad. But in the [bigger] pond, yes. And in the river, too."

He is not alone. Despite the drownings, Aye and a horde of other kids, mostly immigrants who flock to the park, still swim in its deadly waters. This is what we are up against.

Squaw Island used to be a city garbage dump. It was transformed a few years ago into a slice of serenity. Cross over the single-lane railroad bridge off Niagara Street and find a waterfront park with tree-shaded riverbank, two ponds and acres of grassland.

For whatever reason -- its isolation, its recent conversion -- the park is a refuge for refugees. I stopped by early Tuesday evening. Vehicles stuffed with families who fled conflict in Burma, Somalia and other Parts Distant rolled in. Volleyball nets went up, drawing a flock of teenagers. Families gathered on blankets along the shady riverbank. It looked like a Norman Rockwell slice of new-citizen Americana.

Overshadowed by the serenity is the rushing Niagara River and two potentially deadly ponds.

Joel Rama's family came to America for a better life. His life ended in a murky swimming hole two months shy of his 10th birthday. Since the drowning, "No Swimming" signs have gone up around the pond. Similar signs are posted around the park's larger pond, where 16-year-old Diquan Warren drowned in May of last year.

There are no fences around the ponds. There is no barrier between the park and the river's deadly currents. There is no pool, splash pad or other water alternative in the park. Most immigrants don't have backyard pools. City pools don't open until July. Which leaves ponds and the river.

Lah Aye showed me a tree with branches hanging over the river. He and his friends jump in upstream and let the current carry them down.

"We [grab] the tree branches," he said, "and climb out."

It is a dangerous game. Joel Rama's drowning has not stopped them from playing it. Something needs to be done before we count another casualty.

"Leaders of the main refugee populations -- Burmese, Burundi, Somali -- have called me," said Anna Ireland, "wanting to know how we can make this area safe."

Ireland works at Hope Refugee Center. As we walked in the park, several Burmese called her by name. Joel Rama, the boy who drowned, and his family were her clients. Ireland and refugee leaders have ideas. They range from swimming lessons for immigrant kids, to parents preaching the No Swimming rule, to fencing the smaller pond, to putting in a splash pad.

"I think that a splash pad would save lives," Ireland said.

Common Council Member Joe Golombek told me that the park is topsoil over an environmental "cap," which makes it tough to run water pipes.

"But I am open to any discussion," Golombek said.

Two kids have drowned on Squaw Island in 13 months. Summer is upon us. Lah Aye and his friends do not believe that anything bad can happen to them.


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