An often dangerous cycle

Bikes: In Howard County, immigrants who get to and from work on pedal power have become easy marks for thieves.

November 08, 2001|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

It's 11:30 p.m. It's dark. It's 42 degrees. Want to take a bike ride?

Neither does Francisco Diaz. He catches a ride when he can. But some nights the Honduran immigrant doesn't have a choice.

"It's either ride or freeze," he said Tuesday night as he unlocked his five-speed from behind Don Pablo's restaurant in Columbia, where he works as a dishwasher.

Nobody is sure how many men like Diaz bike or walk to work in Howard County. But in recent months the immigrants have become targets for thugs who harass and sometimes rob them as they make their way home.

At least six immigrants have been robbed while walking or riding their bikes in the county in recent months, according to workers at the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network, a group that helps foreign-born residents of the county.

The thieves have learned that the immigrants frequently carry their earnings in cash and that has made them targets, said representatives of the agency and police, who believe that a half-dozen incidents reflect a much deeper problem because many of the workers are reluctant to report crimes.

"They tend to be afraid that any contact with the police would bring some to the attention of other authorities so they tend not to report crimes," said Detective Gabriel Arias of the Howard County Police Department.

Although police have held meetings in the Columbia village of Long Reach, where many immigrants live, "it's a real tough battle to reach that population," Arias said.

Some of the victims remain silent because of questionable immigration status while others lack English skills or don't understand the American legal system.

Police and community groups are trying to reduce their wariness and help them defend themselves by reporting crimes, wearing protective clothing or opening savings accounts. But the advocates acknowledge that it has been difficult to change the group's habits.

"Riding a bike is very acceptable in Latin America. But when they come here, they find it's not seen as normal, and it makes them stand out as targets," said Cheryl Berman, vice president of Conexiones, a group that provides support and career training for Latino immigrants in Howard County.

Diaz's home is less than three miles from the restaurant where he works, but the 15-minute ride can be dangerous. He has seen friends get hit by cars, and he said thieves have stolen his bike twice in the past six months.

Oscar Antonio Lopez-Sanchez, a Salvadoran immigrant, was shot outside his Long Reach apartment complex last year while riding his mo-ped home from his job at a local Burger King. Lopez-Sanchez is paralyzed from the waist down.

Diaz, who had never seen snow before arriving in the United States almost two years ago, says he often gets sick after riding home during the winter. But as he pedaled home in the darkness recently, his heavy Carolina Panthers jacket zipped up, he scoffed at the idea that he might be afraid.

"It's not that bad here," he said in Spanish as he whizzed through the darkened, almost-empty streets that swirled with dead leaves. "The streets are pretty and clean, not like in Honduras, where they're all made of dirt."

Still, he pointed out menacing landmarks along the way.

"See that store over there?" he asked, as he passed a sporting goods store a few parking lots down from his workplace in Columbia Crossing Mall. "That's where I buy a new bike every time they rob me."

"Over there," he said, pointing to a section of Dobbin Lane. "That's where someone got hit by a car."

And as he rode by an apartment complex on Tamar Lane, he said: "This is where I was robbed last time. Eight or nine of them came out and took my bike and my wallet. What could I do?"

"But no, I'm not afraid," he said, raising his voice a notch above its normal low tone. "I'm just careful."

Just then, two men emerged from a gas station, talking loudly. Diaz became noticeably tense and pedaled a little bit faster.

Despite the dangers, Diaz, 39, usually rides his bike because he wants to save money.

He has exchanged his job as a field hand in Yoro, Honduras, where he earned about $3 a day, for an $8.50-an-hour job washing dishes at the Mexican restaurant chain.

His dream is to return to Yoro, Honduras, where his wife, Nelly, and their two children live, within the next two years to buy a ranch. He tries to send $200 or so home to his family each month. The rest of his roughly $300-a-week take-home pay goes for food, rent - which he shares with two other men - and other basic necessities. He has no savings.

Diaz glances at the cars that occasionally whiz by him and says he'd like to have one, especially when it snows. Still, he said he can bear the occasional thief and downpour if it means he can get back to his family in Honduras more quickly.

He dreams that riding the bike to work will be only temporary. "If I can't get a car, I'll find another way," he vowed.

Not everyone shares Diaz's optimism.

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