Souleika Cherif poses for a photo with her daughter, Kawkeb. When their family frantically searched for a lost wedding ring, they discovered a mold and lead infestation behind their couch. It turned out Kawkeb had severe lead poisoning. (Angela Johnston)
Their three-year-old daughter Kawkeb loves playing outdoors. She runs between empty food crates, deep in a game of hide-and-go-seek with her mom.
Inside the factory, the Cherifs and their employees make dozens of different types of hummus. Piles of ripped pita bread sizzle in the deep fryer before being sprinkled with spices. They're packaged and shipped off to farmers markets around the Bay Area.
The hummus factory is right down the street from the studio apartment this family used to live in.
That’s where their lead poisoning story began, a little over three years ago.
A Hidden Problem
Tarek had just opened the business. He worked late nights, sleeping on the couch so he wouldn't disturb his wife and daughter when he came home.
“One day I got sick,” he says. “For three days I was sick in the house. I couldn't even move.”
He just couldn’t shake the lingering cold. Souleika and Kawkeb got it too. Her parents say their little girl was sick for about six months with cold symptoms.
The family only seemed to get better when they left the apartment, like when they went on vacation. Then, one day, Tarek realized he couldn’t find his wedding ring. They tore apart the house looking for it, pulling out the dresser and peering down the sink.
“We flipped the couch over and everything was green, green and black,” Tarek says.
There was mold everywhere.
“I couldn't believe it. I mean, I was in shock," says Tarek.
He says rainwater that collected on the roof seeped into their walls and onto the floor. The mold was disgusting, but they were about to discover something worse.
They took Kawkeb to the hospital to see if the mold was making her sick. The doctors ran other tests, too.
“That’s when we realized that she had lead [poisoning]," says Tarek. "Honestly, the only thing I could think of was that it came from the apartment.”
A Serious Discovery
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there is no safe level for lead, but the threshold for intervention is when blood shows more than 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. Kawkeb’s blood registered a lead level of 23.
“She stopped eating at first. She was always crying for no reason," Souleika recalls. "Under her eyes were dark circles, and she wanted only my breast milk and not other food, and she would sleep a lot."
That unusual behavior terrified Souleika.
"I blamed myself," she says. "I thought I didn't take care of her and that she ate something that I did not pay attention to."
The Cherifs came to the U.S. from Africa: Souleika from Djibouti and Tarek from Tunisia.
“You know, most of the time I don't hear American kids got lead,” says Souleika.
Response Network Kicks Into Gear
The doctor immediately faxed Kawkeb’s high results to the county. Diep Tran, a county public health nurse, called the Cherifs, and the Alameda County Healthy Homes department came by to inspect the property for lead.
The Cherifs say by the time the county inspectors got there, the landlord had painted over the mold and the lead, so they couldn’t find any initial evidence. Painting over lead does contain it, temporarily solving the problem and making it undetectable.
But county officials concluded that when Kawkeb got sick, the mold must have worn down the lead paint on the walls. Lead particles made their way into the air, and onto the floor where Kawkeb used to play.
“She would get affected more than us,” Tarek says. “We could breathe [it in], but because we are adults we could get rid of it faster than she does.”
Once they got Kawkeb into the county’s lead reduction program, the Cherifs moved out temporarily, staying with family while the landlord said he would finish the repairs.
But as soon as they moved back in, Kawkeb’s lead levels didn’t go down like they should. The whole family started to get sick again. Tarek says he could tell the mold and lead weren’t really gone. He called the landlord.
“I took him inside the house and I showed them the same problem again,” Tarek says. “He wanted to move me to another apartment.” It was a neighboring unit in the building. Tarek wanted the county to come and inspect that unit, too.
“I told him, 'before I could move to another apartment, I'm going to bring in a whole team and test the place and then I'll move. If it's safe, I'll move.' And I think that's what actually triggered everything. He evicted us right after that,” Tarek says.
The Legal Battle Begins
The Cherifs claim their landlord evicted them because they started to put up a fight. They’ve sued their former landlord for wrongful eviction and a host of other habitability claims. Basically, they allege their apartment wasn’t safe to live in.
“The same day he kicked us out he had another family move into the apartment," claims Tarek. "He didn’t even clean it. He didn't do a thing. Nothing. I mean we moved out at midnight, and a new family came in at 8 a.m., and they were already in the apartment."
We spoke with the lawyer who represents both Cherifs’ former landlord and the property management company. He said he can’t comment because the case is ongoing, but that his clients “categorically deny any and all of the Cherifs’ claims,” and have not seen any evidence with merit.
Tarek Cherif says he’s worried someone else will get sick staying in his old apartment building.
"I know my neighbors, they're afraid because the rent is still kind of low. So, they don't want to move out even though they know there are all these problems," he said.
Lead-free, but not cheap
The Cherifs paid just under $900 per month for their old place. The fair market rent for a studio in Alameda County is just over $1500 and many go for more.
When they searched for a new place in San Leandro near Tarek’s hummus shop, they couldn’t find anything. Eventually, they moved to Milpitas, a 40-minute drive away, into a house they shared with Tarek’s brother’s family, creating a joint household of seven people.
Their rent nearly quadrupled, but the house is safe. Tarek says he had it tested as soon as he moved in. More importantly, he says, Kawkeb’s acting like herself again.
“She's developing normally, she's grown normal. I mean she speaks, what, seven or eight languages,” Tarek says. “She counts, she knows numbers.”
Her lead levels have gone down significantly, too.
“She's fine,” Souleika chimes in. “She's eating well, she's playing. She's hundred percent healthy, and I’m happy.”
For a family dealing with a lead-poisoned child, the Cherifs were actually lucky. They had a safety net, some savings and family they could move in with.
What happens to the families that don't have anywhere else to move once they discover their child has lead poisoning?
Diep Tran, the nurse who handles severe lead poisoning cases in Alameda County, says she strongly urges families to move if the lead problem is too difficult to fix or the property owners can’t be persuaded. State laws dictate landlords must maintain the property — including addressing lead hazards if there is a lead poisoned child.
Tran says landlords can claim that they want to sell the property instead.
“What if they're really not trying to sell the property and they just want the family to move so they don't have to do the work?" asks Tran. "I cannot go back in three months and snoop around and see that that's what the property owners meant when they said that they are selling. Sometimes they evict the family, and they change their mind.”
Then, the homeowners can rent to someone who can pay more, or sell the property altogether. She says sometimes this type of gentrification can result in lead cleanup.
“After a low-income family moves out, the property owners repaint and remodel the apartment or the house and can charge double or triple the price.”
Tran says when families have no other options, she actually may encourage them to go to a homeless shelter. That actually ups their chance of getting affordable and lead-safe housing.
Other families, Tran says, move to Stockton, Antioch, Vallejo or Concord — suburbs on the edge of the Bay Area or Central Valley with cheaper, newer homes that don’t have lead paint.
In California, some eight million homes were built before lead paint was banned in the 1970s. There are some 400,00 such homes in Alameda County alone.
To follow up on her hunch, we called a handful of Bay Area fair-housing agencies. They told us they’re seeing an alarming trend: clusters of refugees and immigrants in unsafe housing. That practice of landlords taking advantage of people they know won't be able to fight back is called predatory habitability.
That's no surprise to Souleika Cherif. She says, older housing stock often ends up going to people who have fewer resources to deal with problems like lead.