African migrants face extensive challenges

Author’s Note: The migrants interviewed are only identified by their first names in this story. Their interviews were conducted in French and translated by an ACT employee. 

African Communities Together (ACT) greets visitors with a glass of water first thing after entering its Harlem Offices, followed by offers of coffee and tea. The organization—which connects African migrants to key legal, employment, and governmental services—hopes those who seek its help feel at home. But ACT’s Community Navigator Sophie Kouyate feels New York City isn’t as apt at playing host. 

“People need to understand that African communities need to be comfortable to talk to someone,” said Kouyate. “When they’re coming here, they are my son, they are my uncle. When it’s a senior, that’s papa…[the migrants that] come today, we already have something for them to eat. The bread and the mayonnaise and the egg, that’s what we do in Africa. 

“They’re going to feel welcome. That’s why when we have something and [ask] them to come, they always come. Because they know we’re here for them. When you have workers [at shelters] and they don’t look like them, they’re not going to understand them.”

This Saturday marks one year since the first migrant bus arrived from Texas. Yet the situation is nowhere near resolved, with asylum seekers recently sleeping on the streets outside Midtown Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hotel, which was retrofitted into both an arrival center and shelter; the hotel’s shelter was at capacity.  

Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition—of which ACT is a member agency—says that Black migrants, like African asylum seekers, face additional disparities even in an already difficult predicament. 

“We have a racist criminal justice system, which then puts them [migrants] in line with interactions with law enforcement [which] almost always and immediately means an interaction with immigration officials,” said Awawdeh over the phone. “The historical nature of Black immigrants in New York has been one of huge importance here. And to see that Black immigrants continue to sit at the furthest of the margins, [and] continue to be the most vulnerable and marginalized parts of our community, is just unconscionable in a city like New York. 

“We have so much more work to do. It’s incredibly heartbreaking to see that the vast majority of people who are sleeping outside of the [Roosevelt] Hotel are Black migrants.”

An asylum seeker named Marie Noel sought ACT’s assistance with obtaining her IDNYC card and health insurance. She says she initially left Cameroon with her brother for Brazil due to an abusive marriage, but soon found out her spouse had followed her to the South American nation. She showed photos of conspicuous burn marks all over her arm and torso from having hot water poured over her. 

So Marie Noel trekked through South and Central America, entering California after reaching the southern U.S. border. On her journey, she was extorted out of at least $8,000. She ultimately landed in New York after her initial plan to stay with someone she knew in Florida fell through. 

“When [I] came here people welcomed [me] and [asked] what do you need? How can we help you?” said Marie Noel. “We’re here, we need work, but everything [I] asked them they didn’t help [me] with. [I] had food and somewhere to sleep but everything else, they listened [to me] but they never solved [my] situation.” 

She initially stayed at a shelter, but is now living with a host family. 

Allassane, 38, also sought ACT’s help with obtaining health insurance and applying for a New York State ID. The Senegalese migrant arrived this past May after leaving his home due to a serious safety concern and is awaiting work authorization. He’s currently staying in a men’s shelter.

Buses, shelters and legal cases are only a fleeting first step for the African migrants. Asylum seekers cannot currently work until their applications have been pending for over 180 days. 

The migrants repeated their desire to legally earn money at any capacity. Allassane said he was open to any legitimate employment, and saw himself working as a deliveryman. Back in Senegal, he was a car salesman. As for Marie Noel, she fantasizes of one day opening a hair salon in New York City and living in her own apartment. She’s even excited about paying her taxes. The American Dream, she calls it.

Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting

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