It’s about 8:30 a.m. A pair of dark red Catholic, Virgin Guadalupe candles with a picture of the Virgin Mary stare into the eyes of the two “customers” at the cramped University Market Store in City Heights as they walk through the entrance. One might think it is the mark of a good omen, a silent guardian always watching over the place perhaps— though not on this night.
While watching the channel 9 KUSI news on the old disheveled counter, she could not have fathomed what was about to happen next.
A pair of men entered, walking swiftly to the far edge of the counter, away from the entrance where Sirvana—who declined to reveal her last name for the fear of her safety—was sitting. One of the men reached into his pocket and pulled out a gun.
“Put your head down, don’t look at me, and give me all your money,” he said.
Sirvana was terrified.
“They…took everything out of the safe, the cash register…I thought to myself, ‘why should I give them this money, why should I do this?’ But at that moment, you want to save your life,” she said.
After taking everything they could from the safe and emptying the register of its contents, they ran off in what appeared to be a getaway car.
“I still had nightmares for 2 months after that, I would wake up at 2 or 3 o’clock at night…of the men coming in and threatening me,” Sirvana said.
A life in City Heights
Sirvana, who moved to the U.S. from Iraq, maintains her job as a co-store owner with her husband in spite of the horrific robbery on 30 of Sept. 2013.
“I’ve worked here for 20 years, I’ve had good relationship(s) with the customers; no fighting or anything like that,” she said.
In contrast to Sirvana’s optimism, City Heights has one of the highest narcotic to crime ratios in San Diego. One officer who works specifically in the City Heights area, Benjamin Stanley, a PLNU alumnus, as well as a 5-year police officer on the crime suppression team and investigations, has seen these statistics play out in his work as an officer.
“If I were to compare it (City Heights) to say Mission Valley or something like that, there is definitely a difference, and there are many different reasons for that,” he said.
According to crime mapping data from the San Diego Police Department, the combined average number of crimes per 1,000 people in the immediate City Heights area came out to be 28.58, which was reported from January of 2013 to December of 2013; a higher rate than other neighborhoods in the study. To put it into perspective, if one were to combine the crime average for all of the small 14 neighborhoods sectioned in the City Heights area, it would be the third largest region in relation to the other 126 neighborhoods involved in the crime analysis. In terms of the average crimes reported per 1,000 people in the year 2013 alone, there were approximately 400 announced.
Some people like Cynthia Zavala, a resident of City Heights for the past year and a half, have mixed feelings about the living conditions.
“It’s not that clean, it’s trashy and dirty. It depends. Some people are nice, it’s really half-and-half for me,” Zavala said.
Others, particularly new residents to City Heights, Sharon White and John Black, are hopeful while making the best out of what they currently own.
“It’s okay, so far so good,” Black said. “This area really suits where we’re at in our income for the time being, so we really have no other choice right now.”
“Everybody’s friendly so far, definitely a diverse crowd,” White said.
Recovering from trauma
When threatened with death and being a victim of a serious crime, changes are often made to a survivor’s psyche; however, Stanley retains the assertion that there is no explainable reason for Sirvana to find a new job, and that City Heights is not a bad place to live in, especially in regards to the many students and faculty from PLNU who conduct ministry and attend church in the area.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t say she has to move,” Stanley said. “There’s actually quite a few PLNU alumni that live in City Heights. You just have to make sure you aren’t putting yourself in precarious situations that would make yourself an easy victim.”
But while combating potential danger, Sirvana has kept unrelenting resolve.
“The security here is much better here than back home.. I’ve been living here since 1980, and there hasn’t been any problems until that incident…and sometimes it’s really hard to make a living here as a foreign citizen,” Sirvana said. “But what can you do? You got to make a living, you have to work, it’s not the end of the world you know.”
It’s 4:30 pm now on Jan. 21, 2014, nearly 4 months after the incident.
Busy cars are weaving in and out of the narrow two-lane street running adjacent to the store situated on the corner of Winona and University Avenue—a few miles away from the PLNU Community Classroom—bustling about through rush hour traffic. Across the street staring back into the produce store’s parking lot are a group of men dressed in long white garments similar to a thobe, characteristic of the Muslim culture, watching blissful children playing street soccer.
Sirvana briefly looks up from her desk at the children and smiles, perhaps admiring their carelessness while being able to live in the moment, or seeking a means for dealing with emotional catharsis from the horrific event she endured a few months ago. The sun starts to set as she reclines in her chair, watching the KUSI news, and she looks on to another day of unknowns.