Mutual Aid Groups Meet the Migrant Moment

Issue 283

A city-wide network of mutual aid collectives is providing resources and support for thousands of newly-arrived migrants.

Amba Guerguerian Nov 6

On a quiet side street two blocks from a J train subway station in the heart of Bushwick, around 500 migrants live on Stockton Street in a “respite center,” a low-budget version of a homeless shelter begrudgingly provided by a city government that wishes they weren’t here.

The center’s conditions are bleak: seven stories of unfinished concrete. Four floors are covered in row after row of cots adorned with blankets that only partially cover the body, say the residents, who have never experienced a cold winter before. The men there receive one airplane-style pre-cooked meal per day, plus water and fruit, and have little access to social services. Respite centers and other temporary shelters erected during the migrant crisis don’t have to follow the same rules as shelters run by the Department of Homeless Services.

“It’s not so easy to talk to each other in there; it’s not comfortable,” said Michael, a Mauritanian refugee. “You always have to be quiet because someone is sleeping.”

Some of them regularly make their way across the street to the Bushwick City Farm, a communal garden where local residents grow food and host events. The BCF functions as one node in the Mutual Aid Collective, a citywide network of grassroots groups that seeks to fill the void created by the city’s faltering response to the nearly 130,000 migrants that have arrived in New York City since the spring of 2022.

On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, migrants as well as other low-income neighborhood residents line up around the block in front of BCF to receive basic food staples: beans, rice, chicken, bread, fruits and vegetables. While most of them take the food home, a group of mostly West African migrants from across Stocton street take their food into the garden, prepare a meal together, and enjoy each other’s company in a green space where they feel welcomed.

“We find ourselves here and we speak the same languages, we are able to converse in comfort,” Michael said. “It’s family.”

• • •

The origins of the Mutual Aid Collective (MAC) date back to the harrowing early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when various neighborhood groups such as South Bronx Mutual Aid, Washington Square Park Mutual Aid and Buschwick Ayuda Mutua formed to deliver essential supplies to their homebound and homeless neighbors. The George Floyd protests in June of 2020 brought an additional surge of energy and volunteers into these groups which root their work in ideals of mutual aid and decentralized leadership that empowers participants to become more fully involved.

The mutual-aid groups continued to be active in their local communities and stayed in touch with each other after the protests lost momentum. When Republican governors on the southern U.S. border began sending busloads of migrants to large, liberal cities last year, the mutual aid groups’ nimble organizational style proved well-suited to respond to the urgent needs of the migrants.

“The mutual-aid groups were the first ones out there at Port Authority when the migrants started arriving, because we had been in communication with people around the country, and we knew they were coming,” said a MAC member who asked to remain anonymous. “For the first few days, it was mostly mutual aid there, giving out resources and welcoming people, and suggesting people go to those Midtown hotels and claim their right to shelter.”

Now officially more than a year old, the collective has become a little-noticed pillar of the city’s response to the migrant influx. There are more than 20 groups and several faith leaders associated with MAC as well as individuals who don’t belong to any organization. It has over 500 participants across several organizing and volunteer chat groups, some of which are site- or language-specific.

Kitchens and restaurants, like La Morada in the South Bronx, which donates hundreds of meals per week, are also involved with MAC, as are groups that assist as needed like Bodega, the roving mutual-aid truck which can carry large amounts of cargo.

Some groups are heavily involved, but hold less concrete functions. For example, NYC ICE Watch, which formed in 2020 “in response to the imminent threat of the Trump-era ICE raids,” serves as the security arm of the collective. If someone is being harassed at their shelter, by the police, or by right-wing “trolls,” NYC ICE Watch steps in as a buffer, or it might provide security at a mutual aid event. The group also hosts know-your-rights trainings and helps to organize childcare for MAC events.

“It’s not a rigid structure where you have to get a certain amount of hours,” says Ariadna Phillips, a leader with South Bronx Mutual Aid. “The mentality is that we are at our core lay people. We’re neighbors helping neighbors. You step in and step back according to your needs and abilities.”

MAC is circumspect about promoting itself to the broader public. It doesn’t need to raise large sums of money nor does it need to impress philanthropic foundations. New Yorkers who come into contact with MAC mostly do so through word of mouth or by encountering someone from the group during one of its distributions.

South Bronx Mutual Aid organizers, some of which are familiar with software design, released a web-based app it developed called AyudaNYC in August. It is accessible in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Arabic. It offers users six options: Work & Education, Send Message, Find Medical Access, Find Food, Find Clothing and Find Shelter. Collective members that are plugged into the back end of the app receive incoming requests and then begin a triage process in order to figure out how the service request can be best met.

While MAC receives more requests than it can fulfill, it is able to meet some of the most pressing needs of hundreds of people per week. Under the aegis of the collective, distributions take place at shelters and at other community spaces, like gardens and parks. MAC members collect and disperse tangible resources — primarily food, clothing, blankets and hygiene products, but also items like phones and bicycles.

“We actually need people with more storage space right now. And we need people with cars,” says 2Pac, a member of NYC ICE Watch.

MAC relies on donations from individuals and groups (religious congregations, charities, schools, restaurants, other businesses) that are plugged into its social media or other communication channels. In times of necessity, which occur frequently, collective members will donate out-of-pocket or out-of-closet.

In addition to the sharing of food, clothing and supplies, MAC events feature cooking, the sharing of music, hair cutting, child care, sports, political education. The collective also responds to requests for resources and referrals for legal, medical, housing and family-reunification assistance.

Resources are primarily distributed to recently-arrived migrants who have nowhere else to turn, but to other New Yorkers in need as well. Because the collective is embedded in communities and is able to respond in real time to requests that come in through its app, it can often be more responsive and provide a human touch that larger, more bureaucratic organizations cannot.

“Most of our members either are migrants or come from migrant families,” Philips told The Indypendent. Many of the people who learn about MAC for assistance go on to become a part of it. “The conversation has been had many times, ‘Yes, but we operate differently. We work hand-in-hand, collectively.’ Some people are for it and some people are not.

“For anybody that is living the experience of certain difficulties or oppressions, you’re almost guaranteed to find others in your situation. It becomes a decision if you want to band with those people or not. … But if you look out for each other, you have far more strength in numbers.”

“Nobody that is inside of a shelter takes orders from us,” Phillips added. “This mechanism of support suggests that the person being served does some work themselves. For example if you’re in a shelter, if we bring donations, can you make sure they get distributed to other people in your shelter, get organized?”

In this case, the reciprocal exchange is one of tangible resources for intangible ones, such as expanding the organization’s reach and providing it with information about where its services are most useful.

“How else would we know what people need? Ariadna asked. “Or what it looks like inside of a shelter?”

• • •

When the migrants from the Stanton St. respite center participate in distributions at Bushwick Community Farm, they set up a barber station. The meticulous barber (above) was also a coiffeur back home.
A pot of rice and vegetables ready to be dished out on a recent Wednesday afternoon at Bushwick Community Farm.

Mars, a volunteer at Bushwick Community Farm, mans distributions at the garden. “This guy reached out to us saying he got a connect with Whole Foods to bring over a truckload of prepared foods that would be tossed. So he’s renting a U-Haul tomorrow, and that means we will have an extra distribution day this week, of already-cooked food this time,” said Mars on Wednesday in mid-October.

Mars is originally from Quebec; he speaks French and some Spanish and is able to communicate with most of the migrants that frequent BCF. He found out about a free dentist in the Bronx, the phone number of which he has been passing around to BCF visitors. Each Wednesday, he and a group of migrants travel on the subway to participate in soccer games organized by the Woodbine, an anarchist collective in Ridgewood, Queens.

“The guys were playing in bare feet, so Woodbine did a fundraiser. People gave $1,200 for cleats,” Mars said. But instead of buying a pair of cleats for each migrant in the rotating group that participates in soccer night, Mars found a wholesaler who would sell him discounted cleats, “and the guys said, ‘just get 24 pairs’” for whoever is participating any given week. “So they share the cleats, and now we have [around] $1,000 to spend on winter coats and warm blankets.”

As newly-arrived migrants are sent to the Stockton Street respite center, longer-tenured residents are sent in droves to a makeshift tent city on Randall’s Island. But, residents told The Indy that center workers tend to acquiesce when someone refuses transfer, which some migrants have done in order to retain community at BCF.

It should come as no surprise that the migrants are highly adaptable and are able to relate to the improvisational, non-bureaucratic style of activism embodied by the Mutual Aid Collective. They did, after all, traverse half the world in order to make it to safer ground. Many fled politically-dire situations in their home countries, sometimes leaving just after a near one was killed.

“Here we speak everything, a little bit of anything,” says Michael, who is an active member of the BCF mutual aid group and speaks six languages, including Chinese, because he worked for Chinese companies for 10 years in Mauritania. Government oppression back home is severe. “I was part of an opposition political party,” he recalls. “We were persecuted for critiquing the dictatorship, the prisons, the slavery, the lack of freedom. Some of us were killed.”

Like Michael, John, from Senegal, plays an active role at the semi-weekly distributions. He is an unofficial leader of the group of dozens of West African migrants that frequently cross the street to visit BCF. He makes sure each member of the group does their part with cooking and cleaning at the garden. He also helps settle disputes. Even while he was being interviewed by The Indy, two men approached him to help solve an argument about a cell phone. He hears out one man, then the next, and continues to do that until they’ve found common ground. John’s success rate? Almost 100%, he says. “Once they come to me, that means they’re ready to resolve the issue.”

John’s leadership role occurred naturally. In Senegal, he was part of a family of traveling shepherds that had herded sheep for generations. He has traveled through many West African villages, learning to get comfortable quickly in a variety of settings, and speaks eight languages. But due to increasing robbery and violence on the route, John had to flee. Rebel fighters had killed his grandfather. “It was the moment to leave. I felt that if I don’t, I will lose my life,” he said.

“We prefer to prepare our own food and eat in community,” said John after we and others shared a mound of Senegalese food from the same plate, as is custom.

Hearing the warm chatter in Wolof, Poular, French and Arabic, and eating chicken and rice with my hands, I felt momentarily like we were no longer each separately trying to make our way through the cutthroat concrete jungle just to survive. It is the nimble ability of migrant communities — to improvise, and, in their rag-tag fashion, make you feel like you are home, that you are welcome — that has both driven the Mutual Aid Collective and made this city livable for so many.

Interviews with Michael and John (which are pseudonyms) have been translated from French by the author.

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