By BOBBY PEPPER
TUPELO – Five years ago, Chamila Bejar and her two sons moved from the tough streets of the Bronx, N.Y. to the calmer roads of Lee County.
After arriving, Bejar discovered something was missing: a law enforcement officer who knows Spanish. Her brother-in-law, a Tupelo policeman, said he and other officers were having trouble communicating with Hispanics who were moving here in search of jobs and new opportunities.
Bejar, the American-born daughter of Puerto Ricans, soon realized the opportunity she had in her new home. She joined the force.
The 5-foot-2 Bejar went through the police academy training to earn her Tupelo Police Department badge four years ago. In her role as an officer, she reaches out to Hispanics with information to help ease their transition to a new culture. Her determination to serve and protect all residents of Tupelo is earning her respect across cultural borders.
“I definitely saw I could be useful, which is everybody's wish: to be needed and useful,” said Bejar, 33. “It's a great job.”
Ramon Rico, who works at Las Magaritas restaurant in Tupelo, said Bejar's presence in the police department and her genuine concern for others gives Hispanics someone to relate to.
“I feel like she's not a cop; she's a friend,” he said. “I talk to her. I know she wants the best for us.”
Bejar says she wants the best for all residents. She's a frequent guest speaker at Tupelo neighborhood association meetings on subjects like neighborhood watch programs and identity theft.
“The people who attend the meetings are usually older and are not aware of the problems caused by identity theft,” she said. “I try to give them good information on how they can avoid that.”
Joining the police
Bejar's long road to the police force began when she decided to leave New York City for Mississippi.
“My mom lived here in Tupelo, and my kids came here for vacation and loved it. I decided to come down and take a look for myself,” said Bejar, who was born in New York but spent 13 years in California and two in Puerto Rico. “The place was really safe. Of course, I was coming from the Bronx. You see the difference.”
Her brother-in-law, Joe Sturm, told Bejar about the need for a Spanish-speaking officer in Tupelo. The thought stayed with her until her sons saw a TPD stand at The Mall at Barnes Crossing. It was there she met the man who is now her commanding officer, Maj. Anthony Hill.
“The kids drug me over there to the stand,” she said. “I guess it was a Godsend how it all happened. God definitely intervened in that.
“I spoke to Maj. Hill and explained to him I knew Spanish and I was really interested in joining. He talked to our chief at the time. I came in for an interview, and the rest is history.”
Hill recalls from that first conversation Bejar's eagerness to serve her community.
“The first thing she said to me was she was interested in community development and trying to help with some of the problems she sees,” he said. “She's a community person. She believes in helping people, and she's doing a great job.”
During her 6 a.m.-6 p.m. shift, Bejar performs the usual duties of a police officer. But when the opportunity arises, she meets with Hispanics and listens to their concerns. To aid with their adjustment to the American way of life, Bejar hands them Spanish-language pamphlets she compiled on various social and legal issues such as protecting money, neighborhood protection, buying false documents, driving carefully and preventing fraud.
“I get to do a lot in my community and find out what their problems are,” she said. “Whenever I find out something, I pass it on.”
Another pamphlet she's preparing tells Hispanic women how to seek help if they're a victim of spousal abuse.
“Because of the culture, most Hispanic women tend not to reach out when it comes to family matters like that,” Bejar said. “Some of them don't know where. Some of them don't know how. And some of them have this pride thing where they don't want their families to look bad.”
Proud of culture, new home
Even though Bejar has spent almost her entire life in the United States, she's proud of her Puerto Rican heritage. Bejar admits she was excited when Puerto Rico's men's basketball team upset the USA during the Summer Olympics.
“I think we're all raised to be proud of our culture,” she said. “That's something we're brought up with, to have that pride and hold our culture dear.”
On the other hand, Bejar is just as proud of being a Tupelo resident. She recalls a spring break trip she took with her sons back to their old neighborhood in New York City and noticing how much they've changed since becoming Mississippians.
“I forgot I'm so accustomed to life here now,” she said. “I went to my old stomping grounds, and I was walking along and smiling at people. I was so happy. The people would look at me as if I were off because I was smiling at them. Most people wouldn't make eye contact with me.”
Bejar said there's a sense of community in Tupelo that can't be found elsewhere.
“You feel like if you need help, you'll get the help here,” she said. “That's what I love about this town. If there's a way to help a person, it gets done. That's something beautiful to say about a place to live. You can't get that in the Bronx or in most places.”