Immigrant dreams become nightmares

Sun, August 22, 2004

FEAR RIDES the elevator in Regent Park. Up and down, it shadows the residents who try to make the best of life on Blevins Place, though these dreary highrises would be the last place they would choose to raise their families. But they are mostly newcomers to this country, grateful for the start government housing affords them, more than willing to start from the bottom to realize their Canadian dream.

And yet, says Moyeen Ali, Regent Park has become more than a nightmare. It has become a terrifying jail.

"In this environment, how can we live?" asks the worried 31-year-old father of three, a political science masters student who left his studies behind when he came to Canada from Bangladesh nine years ago. "My son is too afraid to go into the elevator now. He doesn't even want to go outside."


On a Saturday afternoon last month, he and his 5-year-old son, Imran, were riding the elevator in their apartment with a young man wearing a baseball cap and hooded sweatshirt. When it stopped at the man's floor, he got out long enough to look up and down the hallway. And then with the coast clear, he stuck his foot back into the path of the elevator door and turned on them.

Most kids Imran's age see guns only on TV. He now saw one pointed at his chest.

"Give me your money, give me your wallet," the gunman demanded.

Ali quickly handed over the $80 he had. "I was scared," the cab driver recalls as we sit in his apartment. "He told me, 'If you report this to the police, I will kill you. I know your apartment.' "

Ali looks at his little boy with the beautiful big black eyes. "He's just 5 1/2," he says. "It's a very bad thing for him to see. He was so scared."

And as for Ali, he had no doubt. "If I didn't give him the money, he'd kill me."

But he would soon learn that this was not an isolated incident. Two weeks before, a man was already inside the elevator when neighbour Khadem Miah got on in the lobby. They rode together until the 10th floor, when the hooded young man made the same sweep of the hallway before suddenly pulling out a knife and a gun.

Miah, 45, felt the cold steel press against his temple as the gunman demanded money. The cabbie was then ordered to turn around so he could be patted down. A few moments later, the highwayman of Blevins Place had disappeared down the hall with $125.

Both Miah and Ali called 911 to report the armed robberies. They've heard from many more who have undergone the same frightening ordeal, but have been too afraid to contact police. Tenants were being robbed in the parking lot arriving home from work, they were being shaken down just outside their building and they were being held up in the elevators. They were a terrorized community, with many unwilling to venture out after dusk, if at all. "After 9 o'clock (p.m.), everybody's scared to go out," Miah says over traditional Bangladesh snacks in Ali's apartment. "It was like living in Najaf."

It didn't help that 51 Division recently moved their station out of Regent Park to the corner of Parliament and Front St. Just the presence of officers arriving for work used to help scatter the bad guys lurking in the area. Now even that deterrent was gone.

They tried complaining to Toronto Housing security, but they say they were told to move.

"But moving is not the solution," insists another neighbour, Omar Sharif, 37. "We felt we had to complain."

So three weeks ago, they decided to fight back. They drafted a letter to Police Chief Julian Fantino, attached a petition with more than 60 names and sent copies to everyone from the mayor to the media describing the climate of fear that was keeping them prisoners in their own homes.

Soon they saw increased patrols around their buildings. And last week, they were invited to a meeting with police and housing officials who assured them that while statistically, crime in Regent Park is going down, their fears will be addressed.

It's a beginning, they say.

"I'm just very worried for my kids," Ali confesses as they escort me downstairs. "This is a very scary place."

I catch myself sighing with relief when I make it back to my car without incident.

I get to leave.

While I see little Imran in my rear view mirror, waving goodbye.