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Why Kansas City Refugees Might Be Vulnerable To Crime

Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3
Maria Wakondo (far right) lives with her extended family in Kansas City's Historic Northeast neighborhood.

On Friday, July 21, Maria Wakondo, a refugee from the Congo, was held up at knifepoint while walking home to her apartment. The robber took her whole purse, including $600 from her just-cashed paycheck. 

She wasn’t hurt, but the incident highlights some of the reasons new refugees can be vulnerable to crime.

Wakondo and her family recently moved to a new brick house in Kansas City's Historic Northeast.

They needed more space. There are eleven of them: Wakondo's parents, siblings and their children. But they also moved to get away from the neighborhood where Wakondo was robbed in July.

Their old apartment was right around the corner from Pops, the convenience store where the incident took place.

Family friend Jennifer Byer translates from Wakondo's native French.

"She was at the quick shop, Pops," Byer says. "And she had her baby on her back, ... and she says a man attacked her."

How Wakondo arrived in Kansas City

Wakondo left the Congo as a young girl in the 1990s. She spent 20 years in a Tanzanian refugee camp. She says her family was often hungry and had to hunt for food. They were resettled to Spokane, Washington, but couldn’t find work.  So they came to Kansas City, where there were other Congolese.

She says the robbery was an unexpected setback.

"She is just afraid," Byer says, translating for Wakondo. "She feels disappointed because she doesn’t feel safe, because she felt she’d be able to walk safely down the street [in this country]."

Potential problems

Hilary Singer of Jewish Vocational Services says resettlement agencies see how refugees have a hard time adapting to certain aspects of life in America, which can put them at risk.

For example, there's a reason most carry cash.

"Most refugees come from countries where the financial institutions are either weak or corrupt,"  she says. "And so there’s no trust in those kinds of formal systems and no familiarity with how they work."

Many refugees don’t have a driver’s license or a car.  They walk where they need to go. This limits where they shop and at what times.

Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Wakondo says she was glad her son wasn't hurt in the attack.

And like many refugees, Wakondo carries a bag over her shoulder, and her baby when she goes out.

"She says that when she was robbed she was carrying the baby on her back, and the robber pushed her against a fence but fortunately the baby wasn’t hurt," Byer says.

Wakondo's family has gotten a lot of help.  For example, Byer reached out to Jerry Fitch on Wakondo's behalf.

Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Retiree Jerry Fitch lives near the Wakondo's old apartment and watches out for the refugees in the neighborhood.

Getting help from neighbors and police

Fitch is a seventy-year-old retiree who sits out on his front stoop much of the day. He's the eyes and ears of the neighborhood.

As police helicopters buzz overhead, he says these blocks around 7th and Indiana see a lot of crime.

As Swahili and French spill out the open windows of nearby apartments, Fitch says he tries to help the refugees understand they need to be careful.

"[I tell them] just take two or three people with them anywhere in this area. Don't go by yourself, especially a lady," he says. "That lady could've really got hurt and her baby could've almost got killed."

The short police report following the incident identifies the suspect as “unknown.” It goes on to note there was a language barrier between the officer and victim. The suspect was arrested, but later released.

Wakondo identified him to police, but they say there wasn’t enough evidence to charge the suspect.

East Patrol Community Involvement Officer Greg Smith says some refugees come from countries where police are corrupt, so they won’t report a crime. But in Wakondo’s case, he thinks it was a lack of understanding, both in terms of language, as well as knowing what police need from a crime scene.

"What detectives do is that they want to make sure they have concrete evidence for a prosecution," Smith says. "They like to go back, get real good information as much as possible,  like video, a description [of the suspect] and any more witnesses they can interview."

Officer Smith stays in touch with the Wakondo family. A police spokesman says detectives are following up on some leads.

But Maria Wakondo is scared for herself and her family. She still sees the man she believes robbed her at knife point around the neighborhood, and it’s unnerving.

Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @laurazig or email lauraz@kcur.org.

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
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