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Apartment Community Near Washington Rings With Many Languages

  • June Soh

The area around the Parkview Gardens Apartments sounds like an international conference - of children. On its playground and grounds, the apartment complex in Riverdale, Maryland, resonates with languages from all over the world.

Ask almost any child playing outside and you will get a different answer: “I am from Nepal.” “I am from Nigeria.” “I am from Afghanistan."

More than half the 600 apartments in this sprawling brick complex are rented by refugees who have fled war, conflict, and persecution around the world to come to the U.S.

Thirty minutes away from downtown Washington, DC, Parkview has been the first U.S. home for newcomers for some three decades.

“It never occurred to me to look for a reason not to help them, says manager David Mendick when the resettlement agency, Catholic Charities asked him for help.

Mendick himself had resettled a few times, having grown up in Liverpool and lived in Israel before coming to the U.S. And he has worked with several resettlement agencies ever since.

"They've tried to house them in other places," he says, "and I've tried to help them and encourage other landlords to house refugees, but nobody has ever been willing to do it. So we continue to do it.”

It has been a good decision. Refugee renters tend to pay their rent on time. They keep their first safe homes in years in good repair.

So much 'talent'

Parkview has repaid its refugee clientele with special accommodations such as donating an apartment to resettlement groups that teach free English classes there. The apartment complex has become a source of dependable labor for nearby factories that send vans to pick up workers, glad to have starter jobs before they move up the ladder.

Zabihullah Zakir now works in shipping at a printing company. He worked with the U.S. aid agency, USAID, in Afghanistan before coming to the U.S. last year with his wife. Working for the U.S. had put him in jeopardy.

“Our life was in danger there," he says. "We applied for SIV (Special Immigrant Visas) and then we came here.”

In some cases, Mendick gives his residents jobs and not just custodial ones either.

"They bring so much to our company, so much diversity and so much talent. And in fact, now upper management in this company is primarily refugees.”

Property manager Zemi Shabiu is one of them. She escaped the war in Kosovo 18 years ago.

“When they first come they all seem lost," she says. "For me it's very easy to say, please do feel comfortable because I was in your shoes so I understand what you're going through."

All the 'Colors'

“I love it,” says Sharif Ali Shafi, standing outside the apartment building, where music in various languages is apt to come from idling vehicles.

“I think it’s beautiful when you see them walking around, and all the colors and the language, and the smell of the food in the different apartments." Ali Shafi is one of the U.S.-born citizens living in Parkview Gardens. "I see the little kids playing. I think it’s great.”

Ali Shafi is only sorry for what his neighbors suffered before coming to Parkview.

For example, Maan Alchawinnu and his family left Iraq and spent 10 years in a Jordanian refugee camp before U.S. entry visas were granted.

"Because my country was no good.ISIS, militia, all too much problem," he says.

He arrived at Parkview Gardens four years ago with the help of a refugee resettlement agency.

Mukti Raj Gurung was born in Bhutan and spent nearly 20 years in a refugee camp in Nepal. He is grateful to be in theU.S.

“Now I am exploring new avenues to uplift my new life and my small family to get into the main stream of this county contributing from my level best,” he says.

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