The Remaking of Vickery Meadow

Ray Mali dresses neatly in a collared cotton shirt, jeans, clean sneakers and a bulky leather jacket that doesn't keep him quite warm enough. It's eight o'clock on a January morning. He takes his last few gulps of tea and leaves for work, his muscles aching even before he steps outside of his apartment. He's only 33, but his body hasn't caught up with his new routine, a long morning commute to a job stocking shelves at a used bookstore, for $7.25 an hour he needs too badly to be anything but prompt.

He begins his walk through the boxy patchwork of parking lots and unadorned buildings of his apartment complex, stopping at the leasing office to pay his $18 electric bill. (His middle name is listed on the bill as "IRC," for International Rescue Committee.) He passes three African men, one of them wearing a gray hoodie over a neon headdress. He keeps winding through his neighborhood, Vickery Meadow, a dense swath of about 100 apartment complexes cradled by NorthPark Center and Whole Foods to the west and Half Price books to the south. It's an overlooked anthill, population 25,000, packed with people here by circumstance.

On his walk up Ridgecrest Road, he passes others, old and young, on their way to wherever they're obligated to be. In the morning, everyone has a destination; night is when people seem to wander. Some groups of commuters speak Spanish; others speak languages too foreign to Dallas to recognize. An estimated 27 languages are spoken in this neighborhood, including Mali's French and English. A daily commute here is a gritty, fleeting, survival-based version of Disney's It's a Small World ride, where dolls from all corners of the globe dance around in a fabricated display.

At least it feels that way until a breeze carrying the smell of marijuana wafts from somewhere nearby, a skunky reminder that it's not that Disney after all.

Mali, whose name has been changed for his protection, arrives at a bus stop near Five Points, a five-way intersection and one of the Dallas Police Department's 27 high-crime focus areas. He waits 15 minutes for the bus, while groups of men loiter at the corner but never ride. Two bus rides and one long hour after locking his front door, he arrives at the used bookstore across town.

"Without being probably arrogant, I went to school," he says. "I never imagined in my life that I would do this job, because I went to school."

Mali worked until recently as a human-rights lawyer in his homeland, the Democratic Republic of Congo, advocating for victims of ongoing conflict, building cases against violent leaders and forwarding the evidence to the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands.

"I have to stay grounded and be like everybody," he says. "If I don't, my situation will be very, very bad. ... I don't know exactly what's going to happen to me tomorrow."

"This area was the equivalent of Uptown," Bob Breunig says, over coffee at Henks Deli on Blackwell Street. Henks is one of the few Vickery businesses that has withstood the test of time, and crime, and decline. But Breunig — who still has the broad shoulders and wide smile of his days as a Cowboys linebacker — remembers a different Vickery Meadow.

Breunig called this neighborhood home for his first two years in Dallas, before he married and moved to Lake Highlands. He arrived in 1975, after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona State. Like many of the rookie Cowboys, he moved into Vickery Meadow for its proximity to the team's training facility and to the bars and restaurants at the corner of Greenville Avenue and Park Lane. The original Filling Station was in the rotation, a convenient place to grab a drink and stay for live music. A walk south on Greenville Avenue felt the way Lower Greenville feels today, with music spilling onto the sidewalk every time a door swung open.

Breunig paid $220 a month in a complex at Meadow Road and Central Expressway — a "top end" spot, he says. Real estate in Vickery was such a commodity that Breunig invested his NFL earnings in two apartment complexes.

Mike Palise worked in the neighborhood in that era, conducting market research for an apartment developer. "In those days, we categorized people by lifestyle," he says. "Swingers" were that area's ideal clients, he says — "singles in their twenties and thirties who liked going out and were looking for their first apartment."

But the neighborhood started to shift in the 1980s. Those singles married and fled to the suburbs, and in 1988, the federal Fair Housing Act — which barred apartment complexes from discriminating against families — was amended to increase enforcement, making it hard for Vickery to hold onto its "swingers."

Breunig managed to sell his two Vickery properties just before the market took a turn for the worse in the late '80s, depressing rents and property values in what had become an overbuilt market. "I suppose those two elements" — the improved Housing Act and the market crash — "are the reasons why Vickery changed," he says.

The neighborhood "started spiraling" in the early 1990s, and lower-income families flocked to what had become a glut of affordable housing. Drugs and crime followed. Five Points became infamous to police, and the area sank into a largely avoided dot on the Dallas map.

Palise moved out of Texas in the late '80s and returned in 1991. He moved into his current Vickery Meadow townhouse, where, like him, most of the tenants in his 25-unit complex are homeowners. It's an unusually stable island in an area where everything is constantly shifting.

"We're a little enclave that's different from the neighborhood. ... You drive in that front entrance and it's another world," he says. "It never felt unsafe. We spend the money and we maintain it properly."

But throughout the 1990s, Palise says, when he ventured outside his development, things got dicey. Three times between 1999 and 2001, he says, he called 911 because he found people unconscious while out walking his dog. He remembers one weekend in the 1990s when five murders were reported within a mile of his apartment.

"I used to joke when I first moved in," he says. "If I didn't hear the police helicopter, something was wrong."

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Mali answers a knock at his door, waving a visitor inside as he finishes a phone call speaking in French, his native language. The conversation sounds straightforward, almost professional.

He hangs up and apologizes for the call

"It's OK," he assures, without prompting.

Dressed in a hoodie and sweatpants, he prepares his visitor tea and sips on his own, guarding himself against the cold seeping in from the outside. He folds himself into a tattered tan sofa, which blends into the beige walls, which blend into the tan carpet. The whole apartment is a sea of neutrals that amount to a fresh start that Mali badly needs to work out.

"I have a wife in Congo [and] two boys," he explains, with a slight accent but otherwise perfect English. He holds up his left ring finger, showing off his gold band, and he flashes a cell-phone photo of his three-year-old son and a baby — another boy. "I know him only by picture," he says of his second child.

In the Congo, Mali says, it was common for his friends, people who did similar work and spoke openly against the government, to go missing and turn up dead. Mali routinely brushed off threatening phone calls as intimidation tactics, but with each call and each death, the tension tightened. It was only a matter of time, he figured, before they came for him.

It happened on November 16, 2010, Mali says. He was kidnapped on his way home from work and thrown into a Congo military prison, where he was abused.

"I can't explain everything," he says, ashamed of what he called "the worst experience of my life." He had built his law career representing victims of torture; he couldn't reconcile becoming one of the people he'd spent his life helping.

A friend bribed the prison guards to allow Mali to escape. After two weeks of hiding in rural farmland, he took off to the United States on a travel visa.

His wife was pregnant when he left. He never said goodbye. Quiet settles in the air when he allows the memories to rush back.

"It was a very, very bad situation," he says. "Oh my God."

He pauses, sipping his tea and fiddling with his hands.

"It's very, very hard."

After he left, soldiers searched for him at his home in Congo. Unable to track him down, they abused his pregnant wife. He can't bear to discuss it in detail.

"I came here in America and I left [my family] in Congo," Mali says.

Officially Mali's travel visa was to attend a human rights conference, but he arrived in New York in late 2010 with no intention of returning home. A conference attendee offered him a place to stay in Virginia, and from there he traveled to Euless, a half-hour west of Dallas, where a Congolese man had offered shelter while Mali worked on his asylum case.

Catholic Charities of Fort Worth referred Mali to the Human Rights Initiative (HRI), a non-profit that helped with his case. He found himself explaining even the most hideous details, the ones he usually avoids, to his American lawyers. It was the "hardest case I've had in my life," he says.

Nearly a year after arriving in the United States, he was granted asylum, a status that comes with government benefits that include rent assistance and help with living expenses. HRI referred him to International Rescue Committee (IRC), a non-profit resettlement agency.

Dallas IRC, which handled Mali's case, considers Vickery Meadow to be refugees' best option, thanks to its massive cache of affordable housing within walking distance of the agency's Greenville Avenue offices. IRC has been resettling people there since the 1990s, and along with Catholic Charities, it has resettled 2,500 refugees there in the past three years alone, largely from Burma, Bhutan and Iraq.

IRC receives federal funding to help Mali with rent and give him $200 per month for living expenses. The rent assistance ends this month.

Not all resettlement agencies will place refugees in Vickery Meadow. "We don't feel the housing is appropriate," says Carol Roxburgh, the CEO of Refugee Services of Texas. "I don't even like to drive through there.

"You can have a fantastic apartment in one place; in the next corner ... it's really up and down," she says.

Occasionally someone requests the area because they already have family living there. In those cases, she says, the agency makes the client sign a housing waiver. "We're just a little bit skeptical."

On a Wednesday in early January, two weeks before he will land his job at the bookstore, Mali sits quietly in a conference room at IRC packed with about 30 refugees. They sit around a U-shaped arrangement of tables in front of a wide projector screen while a member of the agency's employment team teaches the day's lesson. His arrangement with IRC requires that he attend classes like this one — part of a weekly series on finding and maintaining employment until he finds somewhere, anywhere, to work.

In the front of the room, Blet Say, a recent high school graduate with Burmese roots, translates the lesson into Burmese and Karen. Say, who's dressed in a perfectly pressed button-down and dark khaki pants, spent the first 15 years of his life in a refugee camp in Thailand. To him, the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his ailing parents is a fresh alternative to the bamboo and thatch hut he called home for most of his life.

"When you're young, you like every place," he says later. Soft-spoken but upbeat, Say speaks nearly perfect English. He took two months of English at IRC the summer before entering high school, then worked hard at his ESL classes. "I came here and I get the opportunity to learn," he says. "I just have to try hard."

His home, a bare-bones apartment near Mali's place, is where he studies, reads, shares meals with his family and takes care of his parents. He feels secure there. Half Price books is nearby; he goes there to read comics and fiction when he's not too busy. He's also close to IRC, so he can show up to translate even on short notice, and he's next door to many Burmese people who might need his help if they have an appointment at the Vickery Health Clinic or need help filling out forms.

There are a lot of forms to fill out in this neighborhood. Since IRC moved to Greenville Avenue from East Dallas more than a decade ago, services like the Vickery Meadow Learning Center, which offers English classes and childcare, and Heart House, which organizes youth activities, have sprouted throughout the neighborhood. There's a food pantry and a community garden. Hospitals offer refugee health services; churches and synagogues offer tutoring, youth activities and other services.

Today's class focuses on keeping a job once you have one. Always wear clean clothing, the instructor explains as Say translates. Avoid heavy cologne. Don't do drugs. Wash your hands. The lesson would seem basic to many working-age Americans, but not necessarily to the people here, many of whom have spent their entire lives sequestered in refugee camps.

Some of the attendees lean forward, listening intently to Say and the teacher; a few nod along to indicate understanding. Others sit back with their arms folded, looking exhausted. The same process occurs simultaneously across the room, where a Nepalese translator decodes the teacher's English to another group of refugees.

After class, most everyone disperses to their nearby apartments — small and sparse homes in complexes that, over the years, have worked with the resettlement agencies to build a business out of welcoming refugees.

Many of them live in Sunchase Square, a complex densely populated with refugees since at least 1996, when the current owners took over. Sally Nur, a petite woman with a polite accent native to Bombay, India, manages the building. She strives to keep the neighborhood's crime out while providing for the people who consistently pay their rent and don't spurn rashes of 911 calls. Refugees, supported by resettlement agencies and striving for quiet normalcy, are the complex's ideal clients.

Sunchase neighbors The Ivy, an historically troubled complex plagued by crime, transiency and neglect. The owners of Sunchase bought The Ivy in December of 2010 and have been working to make it suitable for refugees and to raise the standard of living there. The building's management expects construction to finish in December, but the makeover has already begun. After taking over The Ivy, its new owners evicted tenants who didn't pay rent or caused problems, and they're now marketing the property to resettlement agencies.

"They are just thankful that they are here," Nur says of the refugees.

Nur is patient enough to extend rent deadlines for good tenants, and she offers Valentine's Day conversation hearts to a little girl who comes to the office with her parents. Her empathy and generosity have limits, though. If it seems as though someone can't pay their bills or will prompt calls to the police, they're out before they're in, she says. "We just deny them," Nur says. She denies nearly as many applications as she accepts, she says.

Her resolve comes with consequences. Veins of cracks wind through a window of her leasing office, stemming from a small circle that looks like a bullet crater. Nur says it was probably from a rock thrown by someone she denied an apartment. The previous week, someone scribbled "FUCK" across a sign at the Sunchase entrance. And twice this month, she says, cars — driven by people angry that she denied them a home, she suspects — tried to mow her down as she crossed the parking lot between the Sunchase and Ivy.

If her role as apartment arbiter makes her uncomfortable, she doesn't show it. "Who was drinking beer outside the apartment?" she asks one tenant, who recently drew police attention.

The same afternoon, Nur stops to see Rasmiya AlGhrawi, an Iraqi grandmother who moved to the complex more than a year ago. The women greet with a big hug and three cheek kisses.

AlGhrawi lost two of her daughters and her husband to violence in Iraq. She moved here after her remaining daughter, Israa Alchalach, fled their country and landed in Vickery, fearing that, as a translator, she would be killed like her two sisters.

On another afternoon, walking through the parking lot of The Ivy, Nur stops to chat with two Bhutanese refugees, and later flags down a Persian man who caused a leak in his apartment when he tried to self-install a bidet. As she makes her way around the complex, two children peek from behind a sheet hung over a window, smiling and waving. Nur explains that the family has blinds but insists on keeping the sheet on the window so the children can play.

"They will work; they will pay their bills; they will have a family life," she says of her refugee tenants. They are sometimes the victims of crime when they forget to lock their doors or carry cash on them because they don't yet have a bank account. She says, and police agree, that they are almost never the perpetrators.

Most long-time Vickery residents don't mind that the refugees are a fixture in their neighborhood. It's just not what they're used to. Palise recalls spotting an African woman walking up the road a few years back, in a bright floral dress. She was carrying a microwave on her head.

It was a scene "right out of the pages of National Geographic," he says. "It's interesting to drive down the street and not see yourself over and over again," Palise's neighbor, Johnson, adds. "They're still wearing their caftans and their interesting headwear."

But Johnson hopes that the neighborhood's role as transitional home for refugees doesn't keep the neighborhood itself from transitioning.

"We still remain hopeful that our neighborhood will kind of re-surge," she says. "And we don't want to think of ourselves as, this is where rents are cheap and people don't particularly keep up their properties. ... I think it's great that these people have a place to come ... but too much of anything is not good."

On a Friday evening in January, a Dallas police officer winds his patrol car through the maze of apartment complexes. "We don't call it Vickery Meadow; we just call it Five Points," he says.

It's cold and the sun is down, but the neighborhood buzzes. Three young Nepali boys carry a soccer ball as they walk through the parking lot of The Ivy. A middle-aged man from Nepal walks to class to practice his English. He moved to the area 20 months ago with his wife and three children, he tells the officer, who chats up residents through his open window.

He cruises past Casa Verde, a complex where resettlement agencies don't place refugees. It's targeted by the city attorney's office for not doing enough to abate crime. Since the city enforcement, he says, it's gotten better. But it's still more trouble than Sunchase Square, he says. "They take care of each other," he says of the refugees. "It's a blessing that these people are here."

Driving through another cluster of apartments, a fourth-grade girl from India, with black, wavy hair hanging in her face, approaches the police cruiser. "First we were dancing, then we started singing," she says, beaming. She and two girls from Africa sing "I Believe I Can Fly."

A typical patrol night, the officer says, means going "from call to call to call," responding to burglary reports, car wrecks, family disturbances, loud music and child custody arguments. When he's not out responding, he's patrolling the Five Points area, where panhandlers linger outside of the stores near the two tiny women who sell elotes from a cart.

Crime in Dallas has decreased over the last eight years, and for the most part Vickery Meadow has kept pace, though it increased slightly from 2010 to 2011. Lieutenant Mackie Ham, whose territory covers Vickery Meadow, started his career in the area in the early 1990s.

"When we came on, crack was king," he says. Though the Five Points area is still among the city's most crime-ridden, the drugs and violence of the 1990s have given way to something safer, more stable. In 1990, there were 4,262 recorded serious offenses in Vickery Meadow, compared with 1,704 in 2010.

"We've always said that the neighborhood is at its tipping point — that something will happen; it's only a matter of time," says Angelina Avalos, the Executive Director of the Vickery Meadow Improvement District. "It's moving to a safer place to be." She points to development that has improved the area in the past few years. Run-down apartments were razed to make way for schools and future retail development. The Park Lane shopping center that houses Whole Foods sprung up on the west side of Vickery Meadow.

"It's changed, and it's evolving, " Ham says. "It will be interesting to see what it evolves to."

The patrol officer spots someone walking through the Towne Center parking lot with a 24-ounce can of off-brand beer and a metal pot of stew. "What are you doing, man?" the cop asks the man, who wears a ragged beard and messy jacket. The man, probably in his 50s, doesn't seem to understand much English, but he comprehends enough to mutter that he is from Thailand. The cop lets him walk on, but worries that if the man drinks too much, he'll be a robbery target. It's hard to tell whether he knows that it's illegal to walk around with a beer.

Although he brushed it off as "OK," the phone call Mali received that January Sunday was far from it. From the moment "anonymous" flashed on his phone, as it does with all incoming calls from Congo, he knew it would be bad news. Calls are too expensive for his phone to ring without purpose.

He picked up the call to find his childhood friend, a Congolese farmer, crying on the other end. Forty people in their village had been killed by a Rwandan militia.

His father called later with the same news. Though he's accustomed to the ongoing conflict, it never becomes easy to bear. "It was kind of a shock — very, very hard for me," Mali says. He was familiar with several of the people who died. His village — his former village — is a place where everyone knows everyone.

Hearing the news from his Vickery apartment, far removed from anyone he knows, he did the only thing he could do. He went to the library on his next day off, wrote a statement about the killings and sent it to a network of global human-rights organizations. His leisure time is spent doing the same advocacy work he did back home, including for his wife and children, whom he's working tirelessly to bring to the States. He compiles old emails and records of phone calls to show that he and his wife are still connected, however loosely, by infrequent and expensive phone calls and limited access to the Internet.

"Hopefully I will have them pretty soon," he says.

The agency wants to know how he will support his family if they come. He's not sure, to be honest. His schedule at the bookstore has become inconsistent lately. He's looking for additional work. He can't escape the guilt he feels for leaving them, but every time he glances at his babies on his cell phone, he remembers that he can't miss another birthday. His youngest son turns one in March.

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Leslie Minora