Anchorage residents gathered Saturday at an east side shopping mall to celebrate the city's diversity, an event prompted by an act of vandalism that targeted local Sudanese refugees.
Families rubbed elbows with politicians in an atrium of the Northway Mall, where We Are Anchorage, an action group formed in March following a spate of gun violence in the city, organized the community potluck.
"The recent hate crime galvanized folks to pull together," said We Are Anchorage member George Martinez. "There is clearly a broad interest in unity; people will not accept intolerance. Those who disagree will have to get with the program."
Mao Tosi, the mall's manager and member of the action group, mingled with attendants and introduced speakers -- such as Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew and mayoral candidate Ethan Berkowitz -- throughout the afternoon.
Across the Glenn Highway from the mall is Mountain View, the most diverse neighborhood in the country as of 2010, according to U.S. Census data.
Women wearing shawls stood in a line stretching to the entrance of the mall, waiting for their turns to grab a bite to eat. Easter bunnies handed children in leather jackets plastic eggs filled with candy.
As people socialized, Catholic Social Services executive director Lisa Aquino walked to the middle of the atrium and addressed the crowd.
"I'm hopeful for Anchorage," she said. "Since the (vandalism incident) there's been a strong outpouring of support for refugees."
Aquino said the nonprofit's Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services program helped about 140 people make Anchorage home in the past year, 90 percent of whom were working within six months.
The refugees come from Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Russia and Bhutan, among other countries, she said.
CSS applauds events that celebrate diversity, she said before lamenting that the Sudanese immigrants awoke to find messages like "Leave Alaska" and "Get Out" scrawled over their cars parked outside their Spenard apartment.
Standing among the crowd, wearing a dress coat and light-blue button-up, Mahajoub Ait echoed that sentiment. The roommate of the men who had their cars covered in hateful phrases said the U.S. government granted him an opportunity to start a new life.
"But they never told us something like this would happen," Ait shouted over the noise of the crowd. "I feel bad about the reaction from the police; we still don't know who or why."
Ait said he was optimistic about the community's reaction, however. He said people have visited him and his roommates and apologized about what happened.
Mew told the crowd at the mall the police department is working closely with the FBI on an investigation into the vandalism.
"We have been working hard, but we need the community's help," the police chief said, adding that he's hoping to learn from the incident.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing