A weekend incident in the Anchorage neighborhood of Spenard has left a group of refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan unsure over their safety. It also brought neighbors and police out to show support.
Muhammad Hano Abdullai, who goes by Hano for short, is one of five men living together in the building, along with other tenants. After taking our shoes off just past the door of the second story apartment, Hano grabs two cans of Mountain Dew for me and another guest before taking a seat on the couch. He woke up Sunday morning after his roommate returned from work to find deflated tires and malicious messages scrawled across two of their vehicles.
“All of our cars are written a message that threatening us to go out, to leave Alaska, go home,” Hano said. “And we felt kind of a little bit frightened.”
The incident left the roommates scared not just over what happened, but for their physical safety.
“We don’t know what will happen for the next time,” he said.
That sense of insecurity was compounded by the police response. The other person sitting on the couch is Debby Bock, who for years has helped members of Anchorage’s Darfurian community navigate resources like housing applications that can be tricky even if English is your first language. Bock came over Sunday after a tenant called asking for help, and was surprised that in a driveway full of vehicles the vandal knew exactly which ones belonged to Hano and his roommates.
“Someone had to go to quite a bit of effort to come up with that many negative messages,” Bock said. “They were spelled correctly. And it was, I think, one person’s handwriting. This was something that was planned, and very precise.”
Bock was upset to learn that police had taken a report over the phone from Hano, but couldn’t spare an officer to come to the scene to investigate or reassure the tenants. She even spoke with a Dispatcher herself.
“She said, ‘Do you feel like there’s been a misunderstanding? That they feel like no report has been filed because no one has appeared in person?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know but that’s how I feel, like this is not being taken seriously,'” Bock said.
The Anchorage Police Department did eventually send an officer over Sunday afternoon, after responding to a possible suspect in the area. However, Hano had gone to work by then, and the officers spoke briefly with another roommate. The message got lost. But on Tuesday the Department reached out to Hano to say things should have gone differently.
“Looking in retrospect it would have been in the benefit to have sent an officer just to go over there and meet with the complainant, and be able to explain to them what the next steps or processes were,” Jennifer Castro, a spokesperson for the police department, said.
Castro says over the phone the incident came across like a vandalism case with minimal damage. In the days after the incident many in Anchorage asked why the department wasn’t calling this a hate crime. Castro says federal hate crime laws are part of sentencing, but you first need to show a suspect committed the act.
“But at this time we don’t have a suspect, we don’t have that confirmation that this ultimately was a hate crime,” Castro said. “I think there’s some clear indications from what the phrases that were that were written on the vehicle that could suggest that this is possibly a hate crime. But we still have to do that legwork in the investigation.”
Police are looking for leads in the case. Catholic Social Services has also gotten in touch with the Federal Bureau of Investigation about whether or not the incident merits Bureau attention.
Retelling the incident Hano looks hurt. He’s been in Anchorage for half a decade since leaving Darfur, after spending four years in a refugee camp in Ghana. There, he met two of the men that are now his roommates. Hano’s mother is in a refugee camp in Chad, and phone contact is difficult. That sentiment of ‘go home’ stings because Hano has made this his home.
“For now I’m working and studying. And I want to go get my education qualifications. And work to save some money. Also to live [a] better life, and to be happy, and to live secure and peaceful,” Hano said.
The roommates are planning on moving out of the Spenard building. They are grateful for the support neighbors and community members have shown, but they don’t feel secure anymore. A church donated money to help them relocate. And they even got a new set of tires from the neighbors next door at the Hell’s Angels Club House.