During an economic downturn, affordable housing programs run by counties such as Fairfax are popular, particularly among immigrants in the region.
Yet Cedar Ridge Apartments in Reston is more than just a subsidized housing complex: Its cultural makeup and the participation of nonprofit organizations and corporations produce an unusually cohesive and vibrant community.
On a recent fall afternoon at Cedar Ridge, Sudanese and Egyptian women wrapped in colorful scarves chatted on park benches as they watched their children play on the monkey bars and slides. They shared home-brewed tea and cookies. Cedar Ridge feeds children from about 80 Arabic-speaking families into Forest Edge Elementary School next door, according to Fairfax County public schools.
While the women congregated with their children near the playground in the late afternoons, before Muslim prayer time, men in white tunics and prayer caps relaxed and talked at the picnic tables adjoining the community office. Washington Flyer taxicabs lined Becontree Lake Drive, because many of the male residents provide transportation services to and from Dulles International Airport.
A dozen or so Cedar Ridge families moved here from the Nubian region of Africa. Residents chat easily with their neighbors in Arabic and Nubian dialect, regardless of whether they were born in Sudan or Egypt. Cedar Ridge is also home to Hispanic and other immigrant groups.
Corporate and charitable contributions sustain a full-time resident assistance program at Cedar Ridge. The community center hosts a daily after-school program for teenagers and kids, along with a summer camp and community and holiday celebrations. Freshta Nawabi, a native of Afghanistan, runs the community office.
Nawabi, whose position is funded by nonprofit Reston Interfaith, is a one-stop shop for residents’ questions and ideas. She, who is quiet and approachable, noted that “residents frequently speak to me in their own languages, thinking I understand.” Nawabi speaks Farsi, Urdu, Pashtu and English.
County residents apply to live at Cedar Ridge through the Fairfax County Rental Program, run by the county Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which also owns the property. Income requirements are not stringent, allowing a family of three to make as much as $82,000. But residents present the community office with an ongoing needs list, including job training, English language studies, food and fuel assistance and translation.
“I think we are making strides in the community,” said Abby Kimble, communications director at Reston Interfaith, “and Freshta makes those relationships happen because people feel comfortable to approach her with questions.”
Reston Interfaith operates with grants and donations from corporations and individuals.
Volunteers from the organization also teach a citizenship class to residents. Hanan Ahmed, 35, from Aswan, Egypt, completed the course in 2010 and received her U.S. citizenship in December. The drive to gain U.S. citizenship is high at Cedar Ridge, and most of Ahmed’s female friends and neighbors have graduated from the class or are currently participating.
Because Cedar Ridge feeds a significant Arabic-speaking population to Forest Edge Elementary, county schools assigned Gigi Hammoud to work there, first as a translator and later as a parent liaison. A native of Sudan, Hammoud assists with parent-teacher conferences. She attributes the large North African population at Cedar Ridge to the proximity of Adams Center, a large Northern Virginia mosque.
“They like being close to the mosque, especially so the kids have that feeling of belonging to a group,” Hammoud said.
She also shares information with teachers and other students about the community, educating them on Muslim customs such as fasting during Ramadan and wearing of head scarves by female students.
As to why many Cedar Ridge residents have lived there almost a decade, “my sense is that they knew each other from before they came to the U.S., or got to know each other very well here,” Hammoud said. “They take care of each other and each other’s kids. Dads are off Fridays, and I see a lot of them picking up the kids from school.”
Nawabi has seen the community help itself in significant ways. “I see carpooling, babysitting for each other’s kids and, in general, neighbor helping neighbor, across ethnic lines. We have a diverse community here.”