Until January, Merci Madilu and his older brother, Espoir, had spent most of their existence in a refugee camp in the landlocked Central African nation of Burundi, where they shared a one-room, mud-walled shelter with their mother and eight younger siblings.
Each day presented the young Congolese men, now 22 and 23, with the same challenge: finding enough food to keep their family from going hungry. They would count themselves lucky if they were able to scrape together beans and rice and a little chicken.
Now, three weeks after arriving in Houston as refugees under the federal refugee resettlement program, hunger is no longer a problem. For the first time in their lives, the eleven members of the Madilu family, several of whom began their journey fleeing armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, have a refrigerator stocked with food inside an apartment with multiple bedrooms, running water, and electricity. But the family is quickly learning that changing locations doesn’t necessarily mean that danger disappears so much as it mutates, taking on new, unexpected forms.
For instance, on a recent afternoon in January, Merci and Espoir—both men wide-eyed, curious, and quick to smile—and their mother, Kanganda Madilu, a shy forty-year-old whose eyes reveal the burden of moving ten children 13,000 miles from home, find themselves huddled on a chilly corner in southwest Houston warily observing the latest threat to their well-being: an eight-lane stretch of Westheimer Road. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles roar by at 50 mph, with no discernible place for humans to cross the street. Their destination: a local health clinic, where they will need to come for vaccinations in the future.
“I’ve never seen so many cars in my life,” Kanganda huffs after several minutes waiting for the rush of vehicles to subside. “It seems like they never end.”
In many big cities crossing the street is unnerving. In southwest Houston, where a grid of heavily trafficked, multilane roads usher drivers to strip malls, big box retailers, and apartment complexes, a successful crossing can feel like cheating death. Not only is southwest Houston one of the most car-dependent areas in the nation, it’s also beset by narrow sidewalks in various states of disrepair, limited signage, distracted drivers, and relentless waves of traffic.
Just a few days ago the family was still scampering across Houston roadways during a lull in traffic, a common practice in Burundi. But today, they decide to continue walking until they find a crosswalk—a distance of nearly a hundred feet.
Few Houstonians would be surprised to learn that between 2013 and 2017, 618 pedestrians and bicyclists were killed by motorists in Harris County and another 1,634 were seriously injured. What is seldom—if ever—acknowledged is that the vast majority of those killed or hurt were people of color, according to data provided by Link Houston, a nonprofit that advocates for safer transportation networks.
More threatening to the Madilu family and other immigrants is this: of the 200,000 or so intersections in the Houston area, six of the ten most deadly are on the city’s southwest side, where the majority of the region’s resettled immigrant population lives, according to Link Houston.
As the Madilus made their way across Westheimer, Claire Poff and Joselyn Umuhoza, Catholic Charities personnel who help acclimate members of Houston’s refugee population, kept a careful eye on the family. The family’s decision to cross safely was cause for celebration.
“I’m impressed,” Poff says, shooting her colleague a thumbs up. “The two brothers, especially, seem to be catching on pretty quickly.”
Together, the two women are the Bear Grylls of Houston’s urban wilds, giving refugees a crash course in transportation and culture. That hands-on effort can include everything from instruction on holding doors for strangers to using elevator buttons, as well as the finer points of buying bus passes and interacting with harried American commuters. Sometimes the lessons are even more rudimentary, but no less important, like teaching someone numerals so they can read addresses or reminding them to smile when they encounter bus drivers.
“The first few times they take a bus, if they don’t speak English, it can be very scary,” said Umuhoza, who teaches her clients to pick out markers in the vast suburban landscape to help orient themselves. “They’re scared of people and they’re scared of cars and they worry about getting lost, especially if they have to go downtown.”
Beneath her warm exterior, Umuhoza—who moved to the United States from Burundi in 2011 and speaks five languages—has a firm, commanding presence. Her clients seem eager to please her. Catering to dozens of families, she keeps her cellphone on seven days a week, turning it off only to attend church on Sunday mornings. The 41-year-old speaks directly, sometimes with a hint of impatience, never hesitating to quiz her clients on the spot or dole out mini-lectures when she senses someone isn’t paying attention. The urgency in her voice, she said, is there for a reason.
“I just really want them to listen,” she said, between relating horror stories of panicked refugees calling her after getting lost in distant parts of this chaotic city. “Because I won’t always be there to rescue them.”
Even refugees who follow the rules can find themselves at risk. In recent months, local resettlement agencies said, a refugee riding a bicycle was struck by a driver as the rider attempted to cross the road. And in two separate incidents, refugees waiting at bus stops were struck by vehicles that jumped the curb. Though it’s frightening, all three victims escaped serious injury.
In Gulfton, a poor immigrant community on the city’s southwest side, residents still remember Mohammad Ali Abdallah, a four-year-old killed in a crosswalk on the first day of school in 2016. The driver dragged the boy’s body up the busy street in front of other students and his mother, who watched in horror.
Even when crosswalks do exist, according to Ines Sigel, director of communications and outreach for Link Houston, poorly placed utility poles can block drivers from seeing whether someone is starting to cross the road during a right-hand turn. Pedestrians who do make it into the street often face another challenge entirely.
“If you’re at Bellaire and Gessner you’re trying to cross an eight-lane road and you’ve got like fifteen seconds,” Sigel said. “That can be hard for anyone, but if you’re an elderly person or a someone carrying groceries with a small child that time limit makes it very difficult.”
Almost all major Texas cities lack adequate sidewalk infrastructure, including Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio, though Houston is uniquely troubled, experts say. Unlike Austin, which has a sidewalk master plan that allows city officials to target walkways in need of improvement, Houston officials have no overarching plan for fixing dilapidated sidewalks, according to Jay Blazek Crossley, the executive director of Farm&City, an Austin-based nonprofit think tank focused on urban planning. Under the city’s current policy, individual property owners are responsible for maintaining the city’s notoriously problematic sidewalks, which a Houston transplant recently called a “horrific adventure” in an essay for the Houston Chronicle.
The problem is particularly bad in southwest Houston, where narrow and crumbling sidewalks can force pedestrians into the street. Beyond the danger, Crossley said the city’s sidewalks send a clear message to refugees. “It’s the same message that has always been sent to low-income Houstonians: you’re not welcome and we don’t value your safety,” Crossley said.
Regardless, Merci and Espoir are making themselves at home. Each day they eagerly embark on a reconnaissance mission, setting off toward grocery stores, exploring local churches, and feeling out new bus routes. “In Burundi, we had to figure out how we were going to eat the next day,” said Espoir, whose name in French means “hope.” “Learning to ride the bus in Houston is much easier.”
They return home with photos of intersections, tips about where to sit on the bus, grocery bags full of their favorite new fruit (apples), and vital information for their mother and younger siblings, such as a tip about a restaurant offering bean, rice, and chicken dishes that are miraculously reminiscent of home. Its name: Chipotle.