By Helena Milburn
When the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan asked members of the community to donate summer clothes for the children of asylum seekers, they were flooded with shorts, t-shirts, and swimsuits – 10,000 total items. It took 70 volunteers and countless hours to sort through them all.
“We have people in the community who need clothes. We have people in the community who have closets full of things they are no longer using. This is a perfect match,” said Sheryl Parker, director of the JCC’s Joseph Stern Center for Social Responsibility. “It’s exactly one of the things that the JCC should be doing, and I’m really proud of it.”
The donations were distributed at a clothing pop-up on May 9, which followed one the JCC had in the winter. Any extra donations were given to St. Paul and St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church, which holds their own clothing drive for asylum seekers.
According to data collected by Naveed Hasan, who serves on the Panel for Educational Policy, the governing body of the New York City Department of Education, there were 608 new refugee students in District 3 public schools between October 31, 2022, and March 18, 2023. Hasan said about 1,000 new refugee students arrive in public schools across New York City per month. He explained that certain schools get more asylum-seeking students, because they have existing Russian and Spanish language programs, which help ease the transition.
Parker and the JCC began speaking with public schools about the new asylum seekers last fall and helped form a working coalition of more than 30 organizations, each volunteering where they can, one offering to install a washing machine so asylum-seekers could do laundry, while the Children’s Museum of Manhattan created free passes to the museum for asylum-seeking families. A major focus of the coalition is helping families with legal services. Asylum-seekers only have one year to file an application for asylum, which makes navigating the complicated U.S. immigration system a pressing challenge. Language barriers makes this process even more difficult.
“It’s not an easy process, even when you have a slam-dunk case, which many of them don’t,” said Erica DePiero. DePiero co-founded the non-profit Manana Otro Dia, another organization in the coalition, with parent volunteers from PS 87 on West 78th Street, in November 2022. According to Hasan’s data, 41 asylum-seeking students have come to PS 87 since Manana Otro Dia was founded.
“Our city is experiencing a crisis, a crisis that’s stretching the entire length of the hemisphere, and we’re just trying to do our small part,” DePiero said. “They’re here, and we can help them, so why wouldn’t we?”
Both Naveed Hasan and his wife immigrated to the United States. Hasan said the support they received from established immigrant communities is part of his motivation for working with new asylum-seekers.
“We feel like we need to pay forward,” Hasan said. “That’s the story of New York City, right? Once you’re established, even a little bit, you immediately turn around and see who else you can help with the experience you had.”