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Neighbors Helping Neighbors: Poly Community Addresses the Migrant Crisis

In the past year, more than 100,000 migrants have arrived in New York City, reports The New York Times. This unprecedented surge of immigration has overwhelmed New York’s social services, leaving many migrants without basic necessities and forcing the entire city to adapt. In response, Poly students and faculty have been devoting their time, resources and skills to address this crisis and help migrants build lives in a new city.   

New York City is known as a “sanctuary city.” According to CNN, this means that the city implements policies “designed to limit cooperation with or involvement in federal immigration enforcement actions.” The New York Immigration Coalition adds that sanctuary cities “protect entire communities and encourage immigrants to access police protection.” As a result, Texas officials have been sending migrants who arrive at the southern border to New York City. Many migrants have also traveled there themselves. According to The New York Times, many of these migrants are from Venezuela, which is in the midst of an economic crisis. Many are also from countries in Africa, or from China.

As a result of this influx, the city has run out of shelters for unhoused migrants, and so it has built or converted additional shelters to house them. These new shelters include a tent camp for migrant families at Floyd Bennett Field, a remote former airfield in Brooklyn. However, Mayor Adams has implemented a regulation requiring single migrants living in shelters to reapply for housing every 30 days, and those with families to reapply every 60 days. If their reapplication is unsuccessful, they are evicted, forcing them to live on the streets. Adams believes that this limit will reduce overcrowding in the shelters.

“They basically could be waiting for weeks where they’re sleeping on the street or sleeping on the subway until maybe they get back in,” said Science teacher Gail Horowitz, who has been volunteering at Floyd Bennett Field to help migrant families. The reapplication policy is “putting people on the streets, but it’s also creating more problems and backlogs for the people that connect people to housing, the agencies and the city workers who are tasked with finding housing for people. All of the sudden someone that was housed 65 days ago is now unhoused and has to go back on line and fill out more paperwork,” said Spanish teacher Amy Richards. Richards has also been volunteering at Floyd Bennett Field, and is currently leading a Service Learning Team during Clubs Block and on the weekends dedicated to helping migrants. Migrants are “losing hope because they’ve been waiting for a very long time to get housing and it’s not happening,” she said. The housing crisis has “gotten to the point where no one can ignore it.”

Many migrants who are able to get housing still lack basic necessities, such as medical supplies and winter clothes. Horowitz said, “there’s people waiting to have a jacket or to have shoes. One time, I had a woman in my car and I brought some stuff for her, and she brought her son with her. Her son was wearing a coat, but he had no shirt under it. I think he was ten. And she was like, ‘I need some shirts in order for him to go to school.’”

To meet needs like this, people throughout the city have been organizing mutual aid networks. “Mutual aid is this idea that when state or local governments are not able to meet the needs of people, neighbors will help neighbors,” said Richards. She and Horowitz are both part of a mutual aid network called Neighbors of Floyd Bennett Field. By talking to migrants and using a Google Form, the Neighbors of Floyd Bennett Field identify what they need, from strollers to suitcases to socks, and then, through the network of volunteers, bring it to them as quickly as possible. For example, Horowitz has been working with a migrant woman from Venezuela who is a nurse. The nurse tells Horowitz what medical supplies she needs, Horowitz provides her with them, and she then uses them to treat other residents of the Floyd Bennett Field shelter. 

For Horowitz, this kind of community-based aid not only provides people with real help, it also provides hope. She said, “I think the best part of working at Floyd Bennett Field is being able to do something.  Like everything we read about in the papers is all about the most awful stuff going on in the world, all over the world, and I often feel so helpless in not being able to do anything about any of these situations. But at Floyd Bennett Field, everything we do, no matter how small, helps someone.”

One of the primary challenges to volunteer work like this is the language barrier. “There’s been a need for folks who speak different languages, particularly Spanish and French, to help with navigating either spaces where there are donations happening, [or] for connecting people to services,” said Richards. According to Bloomberg, in addition to those who speak Spanish and French, there are also large populations of migrants in need of help that speak Wolof, indigenous South American languages, and Chinese languages. 

Seeking to overcome the language barrier, sophomore Mia Pineda has been working with a nonprofit organization called The Little Shop of Kindness that, like Neighbors of Floyd Bennett Field, provides migrants with the supplies they need. At The Little Shop of Kindness, volunteers organize donations and assist migrant customers. Pineda explained, “you’re assigned a family or a person, [and] you help them pick out what they need based on how many people they’re getting clothes for and things like that.” Pineda studies Spanish at Poly, and she uses her language skills to communicate with the families she assists. She hopes to get more Poly students involved with this organization so that they can put the languages they learn at school to use helping people. “I thought that could be really beneficial considering the language classes at Poly…volunteering whenever possible is a really good thing to do, especially if you can speak the language,” she said. 

Both Pineda and Richards spoke at recent meetings of the Student Service Board about the work they are doing to help migrants and how the rest of the school can contribute. Several other student groups, including Unidad, the Matrix Club, Male Allies, and White Anti-Racist Allies, have also been working to address this issue. Senior Sophia Chamorro, the Chair of Student Service Board’s Drives and Events Committee, said, “if there’s a general sense that the student body cares about one issue, we will gear more of our events and activities towards that one topic.” Director of Service Learning Elijah Sivin added that when service work “comes from the kids more, it’s more authentic and empowering.” To that end, Sivin and the Student Service Board geared the recent Pack-Out Day towards the student body’s desire to help the migrant population. 

In the week leading up to the Pack-Out Day, the Board organized canned food and clothes drives. Then, on March 2nd, over fifty students, faculty members and their families came to campus to sort and pack the supplies. In the midst of the packing, sophomores Chloe Guedes Smith and Eliza Rorech led a presentation to educate the community about the issue they were working to address. By the end of the Pack-Out Day, the volunteers had created more than 400 bags of food that were driven to community fridges throughout the city. Sivin and volunteers from One Love Community Fridge then distributed the clothes and other necessary supplies to migrants near shelters on Hall Street in Williamsburg. Sivin said, “There were a lot of folks who seemed to really need things. There were a lot of different languages being spoken. It was really challenging,” Nevertheless, over an hour and a half, he and the volunteers ensured that the supplies the Poly community had gathered made their way into the hands of people that needed them. 

“If you see these folks in person, how do you not feel some sympathy?” said Sivin of his experience at the distribution. “I don’t have the perfect policy solution. I don’t know who does, but I think to understand that these are human beings that are deserving of some sympathy and some understanding” is the first step, he said. Both he and Richards emphasized that this understanding will only become more essential. Richards said, “as the election season heats up and starts to take over the media, immigrants are going to be used as a political weapon. There will be a lot of scapegoating.” 

Whether distributing clothes, speaking with families in their native language, or helping a nurse to treat patients, members of the Poly community have followed the guiding principle of mutual aid: treating migrants as neighbors, not as statistics or political weapons. As Richards said, “It’s really important to keep remembering that the immigrant community is New York City. It’s such an essential part of who we are.”

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About the Contributor
William Ling-Regan
William Ling-Regan, Opinions Editor
Throughout his time at the Polygon, William has served as the Photography Editor, the Features Editor, and, this year, as the Opinions Editor. He has enjoyed writing articles about everything from changes to Poly’s motto to the quails raised at the Lower School, but his favorite is the advice column he co-writes, the Devil’s Advocate. In addition to being a Polygon editor, William co-leads History Club, Student Service Board, Asia Society, the Crew Team, and Blue Key, and is a Vice President of Model UN and a peer tutor. Outside of school, William enjoys reading, hiking, and spending time with his friends and family.

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