MIDLAND BEACH, New York– Staten Island native Melissa Ramos, 18, still remembers when her family was told to evacuate a day before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast. Like so many other New Yorkers, who believed that the storm would come to naught as it had the year before with Hurricane Irene, she, her mother Conception, and her aunt Elizabeth only packed a few items from their two-story rental in Midland Beach, New York. They went to stay with relatives, unaware of the devastation that would soon take place.
What remained of their home was an exposed skeleton of unidentifiable metal, soaked wood, and broken possessions. When they were allowed back to salvage their belongings a week after the storm, Melissa and her mother found empty beer cans on the second floor– signs of storm scavengers who stole what hadn’t been damaged. The Ramos family grabbed what they could identify– some furniture and soggy family photos. A few days later, the second floor collapsed. The house was officially condemned.
“My house was two floors and the first floor was gone,” Melissa said. “It’s funny because you just picture all of your furniture there and then it just disappeared. You couldn’t find it anywhere.”
More than a year since the storm, Conception and Elizabeth– both undocumented immigrants– are still scrambling to eke out a living. Thanks to community organizations, they are slowly getting back on their feet.
Conception and Elizabeth work as house cleaners, now relying on the goodwill of homeowners and donation centers to give them furniture and other material goods. They know that it will take them many more years to get back to some sort of normalcy, especially since the storm washed away Conception’s life savings in a can. And it’s a somber acknowledgement that push grassroots community organizations and pop-up charity stands to remain open, even after private funds dwindle.
On the surface, the Ramos family appears lucky. FEMA only allows citizens and legal immigrants to apply for monetary aid, but the agency also allows mixed immigration status households with at least one legal immigrant to apply as well. Melissa and her sister are American-born citizens, so they were successful in securing a one-time grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for a little over $8,000. The family received one-time monetary grants from other sources– including $1,600 from El Centro del Inmigrante, an immigrant rights organization, and $1,000 from the Mexican Consulate. But Elizabeth said in Spanish, “as fast as [the money] comes, as fast it goes.”
Some undocumented families, like the Ramos family, didn’t know that they could qualify for assistance through just one legal family member. The Ramoses only applied after an El Centro case worker tracked them down through the Mexican Consulate. Others simply mistrusted the federal agency for fear of deportation. Even a New Jersey state website provided incorrect deadlines and unequal access to information for Spanish-speaking applicants.
Help From Community Organizations
Gonzalo Mercado, executive director at El Centro, said that FEMA workers didn’t do enough to understand that some members of the undocumented community live in mixed status families and were thus eligible for aid. As a result, Mercado and other immigrant advocates received constantly evolving information from the federal agency.
“We as advocates didn’t even know who would qualify,” Mercado said. “[FEMA] told us if you don’t have papers, there’s no way you can apply. Then they said if you have a American child. Then… it doesn’t have to be your child. Imagine people trying to understand this if we didn’t even know the qualifications. It was very hard to find the people.”
“In the aftermath, the Mexican consulate came here [to El Centro] and we went to the shelters to find people,” Mercado continued. “And we barely found one or two families in the shelters. There’s a stigma about shelters among the Latino community, [it’s a perception issue], so most went to stay with family and friends.”
Mercardo recalls that finding undocumented immigrants was a difficult process, often relying on personal relationships and ethnic media. A language barrier was one of the reasons keeping some undocumented immigrants from going to the FEMA restoration centers. They were also afraid of military personnel in uniform outside those centers.
“You might think that they’re ICE, so people were very reluctant,” Mercado said. “There was a lady who wouldn’t open the door because her husband told her not to open the door even when someone from the Mexican Consulate knocked on their door.”
El Centro, which is funded by private organizations and donors, has been crucial in securing temporary housing for immigrants. The organization banded with other community organizations to hold so-called “FEMA Days” to mirror the kind of help that FEMA would give to otherwise legal immigrants and U.S. citizens. It dedicated around $100,000 of its $175,000 budget to paying for the first month’s rent and security deposit for 150 families on Staten Island.
Help Also Comes From One Man
Operating on a much smaller budget than El Centro, Aiman Youssef, a naturalized Midland Beach resident, started a donation center by accident. After a relative dropped off a load of basic supplies for Youssef at his now-destroyed home, other Sandy victims thought that he had started a donation drive– some made donations almost immediately, while victims came to collect supplies. He didn’t turn them away. “Aiman’s Hub,” an impromptu donation center was born. For the past ten months, the local charity group Project Hospitality has been his predominant supplier of non-perishable food items.
Here, about 150 Midland Beach residents come by daily to pick up boxes of canola oil, canned spinach, applesauce, piles of donated clothing, toiletries, and Styrofoam containers of food. Youssef knows nearly all of the people, but every day a new person comes by through word-of-mouth. He operates the space from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The donation center is housed under a giant tent on quite literally, the foundation of what was once Youssef’s home. He lives blocks away from the Atlantic Ocean– when the storm hit, Youssef swam against the deluge, using a long electrical extension cord to pull his elderly mother and nephew to the second floor of his neighbor’s house. The water subsided and cleanup efforts began.
Youssef says that he sees about 20 to 30 undocumented immigrants every day, and more around the holidays.
“Without immigrants in this country, we can’t have a community,” Youssef said. “They’re one of the backbones to this community.”
A revolving door of people come in to make donations, while others pick up clothing and diapers. Aiman’s Hub is a godsend because it’s a convenient location to pick up supplies for local residents who still do not have cars. But people have become tired living day to day reliant on donations, and some take it out on Youssef.
Two older Midland Beach residents are combative during their visit– one won’t leave until he gives her more diapers than he’s willing to give out during the daily supply and another tells him to give more supplies out to people who make donations.
“The kids are home and I brought all that food,” the woman said. “They sent all that food, I cooked it all, and I brought it back. I come all the time, since get-go! I want to let you know that we all helped King Tut here.”
“She thinks we’re back to normal, she’s like why aren’t you working? How?” Youssef asks. “How do you replace a $300,000 house with only $40,000 in FEMA aid? People like my neighbor sleep in their garage, people like me have no home. I’m not doing this to help my own problem. I’m helping my community.”
He continues, “If I ask for myself, which I’ve been asking for a van for the place and myself, they crucify me. They think that I’m looking to make money. I just want to help my community. My question to them is, ‘would anyone [sacrifice] a year to do this?… I spent $17,000 of my own money.”
Mercado says that people like Youssef are helpful to the immigrant community since he will not likely report them to immigration authorities. Yet because Youssef is a one-man operation, it’s difficult to control who receives supplies.
Still, immigrants do not have many choices given that most organizations disbanded after disbursing emergency relief. Only El Centro and people like Aiman are still functioning as a main lifeline for many immigrants. Aiman had previously said that he would end his relief efforts at the one-year mark, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. El Centro case workers still check in with families like the Ramoses to provide aid when they need it. And in a lesson taken from Sandy, the center has evolved to serve immigrants in other ways, like holding seminars on immigrant rights.