The Remaking of Vickery Meadow

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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.

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Leslie Minora