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Cops need to back Burmese immigrants

Friends from Minnesota had just arrived for a visit, which is why somebody forgot to lock the door to the West Side double. Phar Kyi and his visitors were chatting in the living room of his downstairs apartment when an uninvited guest appeared at the door, gun in hand.

The guy told everyone to stay seated. They would have listened, had they understood English instead of Karen, the Burmese ethnic dialect. One of the men stood. The thief shot him in the leg. Then – as the victim lay writhing on the floor – the gunman gestured to the others to turn their pockets inside out, emptying them of money.

The thief made off with $250, intended for the driver who had taken the visitors from Minnesota, and loose change. What happened that night last December, aside from the gunshot, is sadly common among the immigrant community settling on Buffalo’s West Side. They came from Burma and other strife-torn countries to escape violence and find freedom. Instead, they became victims.

“If we took matters into our own hands, we could have taken care of it long ago,” said Daniel Leong, a Burmese store owner and translator. “But we know the law and obey it. We just need help.”

The Burmese – many of the oppressed Karen ethnicity – tell tales of police response that is sadly reactive, disconcertedly dismissive and largely ineffective. Some of which is understandable, given the language barrier. But that’s an explanation, not an excuse for a failure to protect vulnerable citizens – some of whom fought government forces in Burma.

After unsatisfying reach-outs to police brass, dozens of Burmese went to a Common Council meeting last week. They were armed with records of four dozen West Side home invasions since last July. They told stories of thieves gloating on Facebook.

If it were happening in Elmwood Village or North Buffalo, politicians would be bellowing and cops would be swarming. With the “invisible” immigrants, it barely registered.

Going public is, for immigrants, a smart move. As longtime Buffalonians know, there’s no better way to prompt action than to embarrass City Hall. When it comes to cultural education, the Burmese – to their benefit – seem to be fast learners.

Phar Kyi said cops and an ambulance came that night 15 minutes after an English-speaking friend made a 911 call. Despite a police promise to keep in touch, Kyi and Leong said there was no follow-up.

I spoke with Kyi and fellow crime victim Gay War on Thursday, at War’s West Side apartment. Kyi is jockey-small, with a wide smile and lively eyes. War looks like a Burmese John Belushi, with dotted-line tattoos on both forearms. His place is sparse but neat, with two small couches bookending a mattress in the living room. There is a Bible on the bureau, next to a computer monitor. A poster of the 10 Commandments – many Karen are Christians – hangs on the wall.

War’s place was broken into last November. Thieves shattered a locked door while the family – he has a wife and four kids – were at Sunday Mass. They took a computer monitor, a tablet and more than $100 from a jar. Many Burmese distrust banks.

War, a rice farmer in Burma, lost his lower right leg to a land mine. His left leg below the knee is indented, the color of ground chuck.

“Our school and village in Burma was burned down [by government forces],” said War, as Leong translated. “We took what we could and escaped.”

They lived in a Thai refugee camp before resettling here four years ago. With sparse education, no résumé and little English, prospects for immigrants like War and Kyi – who has five children – are limited. Not so, though, for their kids.

“They know the language and can get an education,” said War. “They have a future here.”

In fairness, about half of the epidemic of break-ins were never reported. The language barrier and a distrust in government, spawned by oppression in Burma, closes lips. But it doesn’t excuse the lack of connection.

Buffalo has for years been an immigrant destination. Seeing Burmese, Burundi and Somalis on West Side streets is nothing new. Yet reach-out from city officials, police or otherwise, has been disturbingly slow. The mayor still hasn’t appointed anyone to head his newly created Office of New Americans.

Leong, who perfected his English while teaching in a refugee camp, translates through a company for police departments and hospitals across the country. In an excusable irony, he’s not used by police here.

“Sometimes I’m on the phone for hours,” Leong told me. “But not in Buffalo.”

David Rivera’s Niagara Common Council district covers much of the West Side. Rivera admitted the city is “behind the curve” with immigrant reach-out.

“We’re working on a plan for [translator] access, with police the No. 1 priority,” said Rivera, a former Buffalo police detective. “But it needs to be comprehensive, across all city departments – permits, trash, fire. We need to catch up.”

Burmese and other immigrants are following the century-old path of our forefathers. They arrive with the promise of freedom, the dream of a better life and a willingness to work for it – as anything from hotel maids to sushi chefs. They are repopulating a city that others for decades have fled – lifting neighborhoods, adding diversity and putting down roots.

The least we can do is watch their backs.