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Burmese refugees become victims of dozens of burglaries on West Side

Here’s the problem: Dozens, perhaps 100 or more, of burglaries have occurred in recent months on the West Side, targeting refugees from Burma who have arrived in Buffalo by the thousands over the past decade.

But it is complicated.

Many of the victims, because of where they came from, do not trust banks or police. So they keep money stashed in their homes, and in most cases the don’t tell police when burglars strike. So Buffalo police don’t even know how many burglaries have occurred.

Now here is the twist: The victims believe that the people targeting them are young members of their own refugee community.

“They just don’t trust banks and they don’t want to get the police involved. They live with it,” Daniel Leong, a refugee leader, said of other refugees from Burma. “A lot of it is that they are scared for their lives when they come home and find possessions broken and their homes all messed up.”

Police, refugee community leaders and at least one landlord confirm that the burglary spree is going on, as well as the tough situation police face stopping the crime wave.

Police said they hear about the burglaries and are trying to stop them but they are hindered.

“Unfortunately our criminal justice system requires a citizen to step forward and complain about any victimization they experience, and without that first action, we are unable to act effectively on their behalf,” said Central District Police Chief Brian K. Patterson, whose district takes in part of the West Side.

The gang element, refugee leaders say, involves loosely knit groups of teenagers from their own community, the Somalian community and other adolescents, in addition to “lone wolves” taking advantage of the circumstances.

A teenage member of the refugee community from Burma spoke on behalf of his parents, who struggle with their English, telling The Buffalo News that his family has been burglarized twice in the last two months while they were away from their West Side apartment at school or working.

“There’s a gang of Karen and Somalian teenagers and they watch to see when no one is home. The first time we were burglarized they took gold and money. The second time they took a computer,” said the 18-year-old refugee, asking that his name be withheld for fear of retribution. Karen are one of the several ethnic groups from Burma.

Police conduct monthly safety meetings with community members from Burma and other refugee communities to foster better lines of communication and trust.

But the language barrier sometimes makes communication difficult, and there are delays in police responding to the lower-priority calls involving property crimes. But police officials say the language issue has been solved to a degree with a “language access line” that links them to an interpreter over the telephone. That allows for communications at the crime scene with victims.

On slow response times, Community Police Lt. Steven Nichols said all calls are assigned a priority level “and obviously in-progress crimes take priority.”

Leslie Pickering, who rents West Side apartments to refugees and runs a Connecticut Street business, says the gangs recognize that the refugees from Burma prefer to hide their money.

“They know the immigrants aren’t using banks and that there is cash in their homes,” Pickering said in expressing concern for the community. “They are some of the best tenants that I have had. They’re friendly, kind and caring people. They take good care of the property.”

Pickering said he believes police could do more. He also said he is in the process of arranging to have burglar alarms installed in the apartments he rents.

“These are refugees coming from a very hard situation,” Pickering said. “They make a long journey, and feel this country doesn’t support them the way the rest of Americans are supported.”

Patterson says police are committed to the city’s immigrants.

“We care about our immigrant community and as with all members of our community, we stand ready to ensure their safety,” Patterson said. “We have met and built a relationship with leaders in the Karen community. In fact, each one of them have my personal cellphone number and have called with issues.”

Crimes committed by individuals of the same ethnic background are painful, Leong said, considering all of the sacrifices parents have made to come to the United States in search of a better life after spending years in refugee camps because of turmoil in Burma, which was renamed Myanmar by its military government and is now changing over to a democracy.

“Some of the children, 13, 14, 15 years old, don’t want to go to school because, at that age, it is very hard to keep up. When they were back in the refugee camp, some never went to school and that makes it very hard for a person to be interested in school,” Leong said of adolescents who are more vulnerable to turning to street gangs.

But he added that there are plenty of Karen youngsters who want to succeed.

“Many know the purpose of being here, why their parents came and that it would be difficult. They try to survive in school and some go to college,” he said.

As for avoiding becoming a crime victim, he said the community is encouraging the use of surveillance cameras, forming neighborhood watch groups and pushing for greater use of banks. The police, in fact, say bankers have attended community workshops to forge ties with the immigrants.

“This is a process,” Leong said, “and I don’t know how long it will take.”