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Apr. 10, 2017
   

El Cajon officer builds bridge between refugees, police

 


El Cajon police Officer Louie Michael at his desk at police headquarters. A community outreach officer, he helps create trust and understanding between police and the Middle Eastern community in El Cajon. (David Hernandez)

David Hernandez/ Contact Reporter

Like so many in the community he serves, El Cajon police Officer Louie Michael was once a refugee.

He was 5 years old when his parents woke him up in the middle of the night to flee Baghdad in the midst of the Gulf War in 1991.

“I can tell you it wasn’t easy,” Michael said. “You’re leaving your home. You’re leaving everything behind.”

For about three years, Michael and his family lived in a Turkish refugee camp before immigrating to the United States.

His disrupted childhood would prove useful in his profession. In his nine years as an officer, he has helped to build trust and understanding between the El Cajon Police Department and the large Middle Eastern population in the region.

Fluent in Arabic and Aramaic, Michael helps translate for police, creates public service ads in those languages and assists with investigations involving members of the refugee and immigrant community.

A community relations officer, Michael also provides training to educate officers about Middle Eastern culture and gives presentations, at places like churches and mosques, to teach immigrants about U.S. law enforcement.

His efforts began well before President Donald Trump took office and sought to enforce stricter immigration policies, restricting U.S. entry to some refugees.

For Michael, it’s been part of the job from day one. His work, he said, is a way to give back to the country that embraced him with open arms and allowed him to build a life he chose.

“This country gave me an opportunity that most countries wouldn’t have,” he said.

Michael decided to veer from the immigrant “tradition” of running a shop, restaurant or business in El Cajon. Instead, he chose to become an officer — an unpredictable move for someone from a country often regarded as lawless.

His influence came from a neighbor who lived two doors down: Officer Mark Barber, now a homicide investigator.

“I was really intrigued … seeing how he was figured like a hero in the community because he was there to protect and serve,” Michael said.

It’s a concept that can be particularly difficult for immigrants from the Middle East to grasp. The unrest in their war-torn countries often leads to distrust, or even fear, of law enforcement.

“They don’t understand what law enforcement (in the U.S.) stands for,” he said. “They think it’s just about taking people to jail. All they see is the uniform. It obviously brings back memories of what they remember in their homelands.”

It’s why he values community outreach. The more officers become part of the community, the easier it is to build a sense of trust, Michael said.

In working with newly arrived immigrants, time also is a factor. Michael said it takes a while for them to feel like they are part of the community, sometimes years after their arrival to the U.S.

After five years, they are allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship. For many, only then do they feel that this country is their home, he said.

Last month, Michael’s efforts to connect police and the Middle Eastern community in El Cajon earned him a recognition by the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles. He was one of three people to receive the Sherwood Prize for Combating Hate.

Michael, however, doesn’t see his accomplishments as award-worthy.

“I’m just doing my job,” he said. “To me, any little impact that I can make in anyone’s life means a lot. That really is the reward for me,” he said.

Michael, who is married and has two young boys, said he wants his story to inspire people who are in the same situation he was in when he first arrived to the U.S.

“One day, if you put your mind and heart into something, this country will let that happen — you can make it happen," he said.

“The hardest part was getting here, and you're here now,” Michael said. “You start a new chapter in your life, and you move on. If I can do it, you can do it.”

Police spokesman Lt. Rob Ransweiler said Michael exemplifies what the El Cajon Police Department hopes to bring out in its officers.

“What he represents is the community,” the lieutenant said.

 

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