By Adam Sims
Mike Baker, maintenance man of Lee Pointe Condos, walks across the parking lot. One resident hands him a doorknob from her door, saying it’s broken, and Baker promises to fix it as soon as he can.
To some, it seems like an average complex. However, Lee Pointe is different in that almost all the residents are refugees.
Lee Pointe was built in 2010. Originally, it was mostly inhabited by Americans. Now, that has changed.
“There are around 15 to 18 families total, and every building has maybe only one American family,” Baker said.
Baker said the apartment had a bad reputation at first.
“It was rough here a few years ago,” Baker said. “Police coming two to three times a week. Fights. Just craziness. It was always American families.”
The apartment’s reputation improved as they brought more refugees. “When I see police here, there is a 99.999 percent chance they’re going to an American’s apartment,” Baker said.
Now, Baker mostly serves foreign-born families, and to him, he is not just a maintenance man for the residents at Lee Pointe, but also a friend.
“If I’m hungry, they feed me,” he said.
Baker wasn’t always the maintenance man. Fifteen years ago, he rented a house from Lee Pointe owner Barry Cummings, and he considered starting his own cleaning business. He helped Cummings with a few jobs across his properties, such as pressure washing, and did the construction cleanup for Lee Pointe. Cummings and Baker soon developed a professional relationship, with Cummings calling Baker for maintenance requests. He is currently trying to become a manager for Lee Pointe.
However, Baker still has friendships with all the residents. He gives the children advice, chats with the residents and even gives residents some of the junk he’s gathered from old buildings, such as microwaves. In his van, a baby bed was stuffed, and he planned to keep it until he could find someone who wanted it.
Baker thinks that interacting with children is necessary. “The kids learn from different cultures,” Baker said. “One thing they all have in common is they love to play soccer. To see one thing tie people together is Americanlike.”
Children help Baker to break the language barrier between him and the adult residents. Baker also picks up on languages spoken by the residents, but is more impressed with how the residents learn.
“They’re educated. They catch on fast. If I went to their country and lived there for five years, I still wouldn’t know the language,” he said.
However, many residents of Lee Pointe do not speak English fluently and need help with basic activities such as reading mail or visiting the doctor. While the International Center helps them as they integrate, one resident of Lee Pointe helps his neighbors break the language barrier.
Mohamed is currently unemployed, and his wife works at Purdue. He originally worked at Trace Die Cast, but quit due to an illness. Instead, he acts as a mediator for all the families across Lee Pointe. Fluent in English before he moved to the US, he assists the residents who may not know English by reading their mail or helping in emergency situations.
“Some of them need to go to the hospital. I come with them and explain their problems to the clinics,” Mohamed said.
His influence across Lee Pointe has earned him the nickname of “The Godfather” by Cummings and Baker.
“It’s like a village, and The Godfather is like the man in the village,” Baker said. “Everyone comes to him with their problems.”
Mohamed says he has not experienced discrimination, but knows that some Americans are afraid of his Islamic faith. A 2016 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs revealed that only 36 percent of Americans support the US accepting Syrian refugees. One reason may be due to the recent string of terrorist attacks across Europe. However, Mohamad disavows the attackers.
“We are Sunnis. We are moderates,” he said. He acknowledged that many non-Muslims do not realize how diverse the faith is, with many branches just like Christianity.
One of Mohamed’s children, Ismahan Ibrahim, is currently attending Warren Central High School. She has integrated into US culture, and said she has had no problems being a student at Warren Central.
“They treat me like I’m equal,” she said.
Ibrahim will graduate soon, and originally planned to attend Harvard. However, she’s currently looking at going to Western Kentucky University for two years and then pursuing a medical degree at Spencerian College in Louisville.
Overseeing Lee Pointe is Barry Cummings. Cummings owns other properties across Bowling Green, and has been working with the International Center since the late 1990s. Most residents of Lee Pointe are Somali and Congolese refugees, with a mix of other backgrounds as well.
The International Center pays Cummings three to six months’ worth of rent for the refugees, depending on the size of the family, until the refugees are financially independent. His only issue is the language barrier.
“The biggest thing is communication. You have to find someone to translate.”
A 2014 Census report reveals that less than half of US immigrants can speak English, and this number is lower for refugees. However, Cummings has a variety of ways to translate the needs of the refugees. He uses the International Center to help, as well as translation apps on his phone. Another way to translate is through the children of the refugees, who pick up English much faster than the adults.
Cummings does not remember how he became involved with the International Center, but is glad he did.
“Everybody gets along. Kids play together. It’s a normal neighborhood,” Cummings said.