Da Ku’s 12th birthday party seemed a lifetime away from the ramshackle refugee camp on the border of Thailand and Myanmar, where he was born.
Friends and family arrived at his aunt’s house in a steady stream, carrying armfuls of supplies to an increasingly crowded kitchen. The food reflected their past home (Burmese rice noodles, pork meatballs) and their new one in Wisconsin (white-frosted cake, topped with a plastic hunter stalking a toy deer).
But a conspicuous absence in the festivities served to remind Da Ku and his family that America had not proved to be the safe harbor they had hoped. Jay Ro, Da Ku’s father, wasn’t there. He had been killed two years earlier during a botched armed robbery of his family’s home.
Da Ku arrived in Milwaukee with his family of seven in 2011, his mother and father hoping that their lives — to that point shaped largely by poverty, displacement, and violence — would finally be anchored.
The family was resettled in the Midtown neighborhood on Milwaukee’s northwest side, where affordable homes are in plentiful supply, but where shootings are common. The family moved twice, always within the same few blocks.
In 2015, the year Da Ku’s father was murdered, there were 24 homicides and 150 non-fatal shootings in the police district that includes the neighborhood. The violent crime rate in Midtown was about five times the national average, according to data compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and police figures.
“They call this area ‘the shooting range,’” said Father Rafael Rodriguez, the pastor at St. Michael’s Church, a neighborhood institution. “This is not the best environment to bring people that need some stability.”
Yet resettlement agencies continue to place refugees in the neighborhood in high numbers, community leaders say. There are now so many in St. Michael’s congregation that prayers for Mass are translated into at least five Southeast Asian languages. The angels hanging in the church are not dressed in standard white robes but instead adorned in colorful traditional clothing to reflect the ethnic mix of worshippers who fill the pews on Sunday.
All told, Milwaukee has received just over 4,600 of the 6,126 refugees resettled in Wisconsin over the past five fiscal years, State Department data shows. Most of these refugees — about 3,000 — were from Myanmar.
Federal and state agencies do not maintain data that shows beyond the city and county level exactly where refugees are resettled, but community leaders and current and former resettlement agency employees say the majority are placed in neighborhoods where housing costs are low and crime rates are often high. The same pattern plays out in Chicago and Rockford, Illinois, two other Midwestern cities that are struggling with high rates of violent crime — especially gun crime.
Jay Ro’s killing stunned Milwaukee’s tight-knit community of Karen refugees, one of the 135 recognized ethnic groups in the fractious country of Myanmar, where they have faced persecution by the country’s military, including torture, land seizures, and arbitrary killings.
Chia Youyee Vang, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who has studied refugee communities, said the new arrivals often struggle to acclimate. “They don’t know all the rules of this country, there are shootings in these neighborhoods, it is a really challenging situation.”
Experts, community members, and refugees themselves blame a system hobbled by a lack of funding and conflicting directives. In 2017, the State Department allotted the nonprofit agencies that work with families $2,075 per refugee for resettlement costs. Of that total, $1,125 must be used for direct support of refugees, on things like food and furnishings. The other $950 is available to the local affiliate to spend on its staff and infrastructure.
Agencies are contractually required to secure “decent, safe, and sanitary housing” — and must also take into account pre-existing refugee communities that could make integration into life in the United States easier for new arrivals. There often isn’t enough money, experts say, to finance resettlement in a safe, secure neighborhood.
“They [resettlement agencies] are pressured to find apartments quickly and then to try to find employment quickly for their clients and then move on to the next client as quickly as they can,” said Jessica Darrow, a lecturer at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration.
President Donald Trump, a harsh and constant critic of immigration, has slashed the refugee cap to 45,000, the lowest level since the Refugee Act of 1980 was passed by Congress. The International Rescue Committee in April projected no more than 23,000 refugee arrivals for the fiscal year. Because funding for resettlement agencies is linked to the number of refugees it services, a smaller number of refugees entering the United States does not mean more resources per individual, or more time for resettlement officials to work with refugees. Agencies that depend on federal funding have been forced to reduce staffing or even close.
Chicago has pitched itself as one of the most welcoming cities in the country to immigrants and refugees. It has also struggled to contain persistent gun violence that surged in 2016 to levels not seen since the 1990s. The number of murders dropped in 2017 to 650, but still have not receded to pre-2016 levels.
As in most cities, evaluating Chicago’s crime rate on a citywide scale is a poor measure for evaluating the safety of individual neighborhoods. Some are as safe as any in the country — others have shooting and homicide rates that rival the most dangerous places in the world.
Violence is concentrated on the city’s West Side and South Side, but has also at times spilled into northern neighborhoods like Uptown and Rogers Park. That’s where many of refugees are resettled, according to RefugeeOne, the city’s largest resettlement agency.
Darlis Nkolomi, a 17-year-old, who was resettled in Chicago as a child with his mother from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was fatally shot in the head last April in Rogers Park after surviving a drive-by shooting a year earlier. The death left his mother, Chantal Mulumba, who carried Darlis in her arms as she fled war in her homeland 18 years ago, distraught and questioning why she had ever accepted placement in the United States.
“I wanted to come here, have a nice house, a car, but they kill your son,” she said. “They broke my heart. They killed me, too.”
In October, another teenager from Congo was shot and wounded in an alley for refusing to join a gang, according to a city alderman. The alderman, Joe Moore, said violence against refugees in his community was becoming a problem, so much so that he has met with refugee aid groups to discuss how they can help their clients.
About 90 miles from both Milwaukee and Chicago is Rockford, a Rust Belt city that has welcomed almost 3,000 refugees since 2007. The violent crime rate is higher than in Chicago, and refugees have found themselves placed in neighborhoods where the sound of gunshots is common.
Hudhaifa Albayati, a refugee who worked as a U.S. Army translator in Iraq, helps newcomers navigating life in Rockford after experiencing his own difficult transition, which included being bound and robbed at gunpoint during his first job, as a gas station attendant.
The experience, he said, left his wife begging him to return with her to Iraq, despite the ongoing war and personal danger from his previous role with the Army.
“They place them [refugees] in a cheap area where no one wants to stay. If you have kids, you’d be concerned about your kids, your wife,” Albayati said. “They just drop you, like ‘boom.’”
Patrick Winn, Diocesan Director at the Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Rockford, said that he is aware of the city’s crime issues, but that the organization has to work with what housing is open.
“Rockford’s got an above-average, unfortunately, crime rate and so our perspective is the placement goes according to the availability of the apartments as opposed to trying to say this is high-crime, this is a low-crime area,” Winn said.
He added, “coming here and living in Rockford is a whole lot safer than where they came from.”
The State Department does not maintain resettlement data that is more specific than the city level, a spokeswoman said. State-level resettlement officials in Illinois and Wisconsin said they do not either.
The Trace reached out to refugee resettlement agencies in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Rockford. RefugeeOne provided data of where some of the refugees it had resettled currently live, but said it does not maintain data on where they were initially resettled. All others declined to provide data, citing privacy concerns.
After two years of filling out paperwork and sitting for interviews, Jay Ro and Ca Tri Na were told they had won the equivalent of the refugee lottery: they were finally leaving the refugee camp in Thailand where they had met, married, and had four children — three boys and a girl.
In 2011, they were assigned to Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
State Department officials interviewed Jay Ro’s case worker and other officials from Catholic Charities in December 2014, before Jay Ro’s death, as part of a review of its services. The review, released last year, found the organization to be “partially compliant” with federal requirements. “Home visits indicated that refugees are not always living in safe or sanitary environments [sic],” the document said.
One family, which included a member in a wheelchair, was placed in an apartment accessible only by five stairs. Another was rehoused after initially being housed in a basement apartment with a rotting bathroom floor, mice, and dangerous electrical hook-ups, the review said.
Two years later, Catholic Charities was found to have improved its services and was evaluated as “compliant,” with federal regulations.
In an email, Sarah Powers, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities, said the agency only has “interest in contributing to those articles pieces which inform the public and advocate for the refugee community in a positive and productive way.” She declined to comment further.
The audits said nothing about the dangers outside the homes of resettled families.
In a 2011 study of Karen resettlement in the Northeast published in the Journal of Refugee Studies, academics Paul Kenny and Kate Lockwood-Kenny wrote that “affordable inner-city housing is typically found in the most dangerous neighborhoods.” Many Karen were resettled on a “street notorious for gang, drug, and prostitution activity,” before eventually being moved.
Mayhoua Moua, the executive director of the Southeast Asian Educational Development, a group that provides assistance to refugees, describes the area where Jay Ro and his family was resettled as one that has been “a high-crime area for a very long time.”
She added: “Unfortunately that is where low-cost housing can be found.”
Experts who work at resettlement agencies and researchers who have studied them say the agencies bear some responsibility for not doing more to ensure that refugee housing is safe and secure. But they say those agencies are often in an impossible situation, tasked with finding housing and employment with too little time and too little money.
“We have been creative with the outside funding, but it should be coming from the government if this is the responsibility that the government is taking,” said one Chicago-based caseworker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about the challenges of resettlement. “Why do we have to get outside sources just to do the work that we should be funded to do?”
Asked about funding complaints, a State Department spokesperson said, “One of the strengths of the program is that it is a public-private partnership in which federal government resources are leveraged with state, private, nonprofit, faith-based, and community resources to support refugees.”
Mickey Singarath lived half a mile from Jay Ro’s house with his mother and his older brother.
His parents divorced when he was 5 or 6 years old, and he dropped out of high school after ninth grade. “He was distracted by the streets,” his attorney later said. For a while, he worked as a home care assistant and as a handyman. But by the summer of 2015, when he was 22, he was unemployed and living at his mother’s home, she told police.
On the morning of June 25, 2015, Singarath rang the doorbell at Jay Ro’s home as the family was preparing breakfast, according to court documents. Htee Moo, Ca Tri Na’s oldest son, asked who was at the door. Singarath replied that he had come to “fix the house.”
After Htee Moo, then 11, opened the door, Singarath grabbed the boy with one arm and covered his own face with his other. Pointing a handgun at Htee Moo’s chest and neck, Singarath pushed him into the dining room, while demanding cash. When police questioned him later that day, Htee Moo would describe the firearm as looking like a “cowboy” gun.
Behind Singarath, a second man, with a mohawk and his face covered by a black mask, entered the house and began knocking items off a dining room shelf, sending them crashing to the floor.
“Give me the money,” Singarath said as he made his way toward the family’s cluttered kitchen, still holding Htee Moo. “Give me the money,” he repeated.
What money Singarath was demanding is unclear. Jay Ro had struggled to keep a steady job since arriving in the United States and had recently been laid off. The family’s house was sparsely furnished. Crime scene photos show few possessions of value in the residence — two black microwaves, a dated box television, a space heater propped on a metal rack in the kitchen.
Singarath forced Htee Moo into the kitchen where Jay Ro was preparing breakfast with other family members. Seeing his son held at gunpoint, Jay Ro tried to grab the firearm. Singarath pointed the gun at Jay Ro and fired once, hitting him in the the left side of his chest, the bullet traveling downward and exiting his back.
“He was going to shoot me at first,” Htee Moo quietly recounted in an interview. “But after my dad came rushing in, he put me down. Then he shot my dad.”
Seeing Jay Ro fall to the floor, Singarath and his accomplice fled. Jay Ro’s family members frantically tried to get help at a nearby fire station, before calling the police. He was pronounced dead at 6:45 am.
Police arrested Singarath just over a month later. He confessed, and said he handed the gun, described in the criminal complaint as a revolver, to his accomplice after they fled the scene. Police later found a loaded 9mm semiautomatic handgun in his dresser.
Singarath pleaded guilty to felony murder charges in November 2015 was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
“The tragic death of my husband has brought more emotional and financial hardship on my family,” Ca Tri Na wrote in a letter submitted to the court. “We came to this country to escape persecution. We came to this country to build a family. This tragedy has now left my family living in fear not knowing how safe we can be, whether in our own home or in public places.”
Singarath did not respond to a letter sent to him at the Columbia Correctional Facility, where he is imprisoned. “I never meant to hurt anyone or to even take anyone’s life. To take someone’s life was never my intention, and I am very sorry that it happened,” Singarath told the court at his sentencing.
Ca Tri Na and her family moved in September 2015 to an apartment on the safer southside of Milwaukee, where her children have largely adapted to American life.
Htee Moo, who is soft spoken and slender, has excelled as a member of his school’s soccer team. Conversations with his siblings are peppered with pop culture references about trending YouTube stars and popular video games.
Ca Tri Na’s transition to life in the United States, now largely defined by her husband’s death, has been challenging. Her English is halting. She takes care of her elderly parents, who have limited mobility. She spends most of her time inside her apartment. The walls are decorated with Christian posters and pictures of Jay Ro.
She struggles to describe her husband without long pauses that lead to tears, before apologizing profusely.
“I never thought about this happening here,” she said.