Compassionate Communities Award

2023: Afrikana & Adama Bah

2023 marked the convergence of various issues that negatively impact unsheltered people in New York. This included a surge in mass homelessness among long-term New Yorkers as COVID-19 protections and safety net funding began to abate and housing continued to be unaffordable; a continued influx of new arrivals from around the globe, many of whom were directed to New York by Texas; and efforts by Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul to undermine New York’s legal Right to Shelter. These issues have tested our City’s resolve and commitment to being a place that welcomes “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The manner in which Adama Bah and Afrikana have navigated these challenges and modeled compassion is why the Coalition for the Homeless is proud to honor them with our eighth annual Compassionate Communities Award.

Adama Bah, Afrikana founder, talks with head volunteer Omar Sarr, who is known as “the coordinator” at the community center in Harlem. (Source: Eliana Perozo / Chalkbeat)

Not long after the first migrants started arriving at New York’s Port Authority in March 2019, Adama began welcoming them and connecting them to vital services. In the wake of such activity, Adama leveraged over 18 years of experience working on behalf of migrant communities to form Afrikana – which is named in recognition of her experiences growing up in Spanish Harlem and quickly learning, as an asylee from Guinea, that Africana is the Spanish word for an African female. Embracing this term for her organization also appropriately highlights a primary focus of the organization’s work – serving both Spanish-speakers from Venezuela and other parts of Latin America and also Black migrants from Haiti, Senegal, Mauritania, Congo, and other African nations. Adama and unpaid volunteers, who are the sole workforce of Afrikana, engaged in onsite case management at Port Authority, helping to identify each new arrival’s short-term and long-term needs and directing them accordingly.

Afrikana achieved a great deal of success, but when the City ceased migrant services at Port Authority, they were no longer able to easily connect with people as they arrived and had to adapt their service delivery model to primarily assist from a new office in East Harlem. Adama estimates that Afrikana currently serves over 340 new individuals each day at its East Harlem office (Afrikana used to serve 500 people each day, but due to the overwhelming need and lack of volunteers they needed to institute the current appointment system). This is in addition to returning individuals, including about 50 new arrivals who use Afrikana’s office as their mailing address for critical immigration and other correspondence. Because of their commitment to facilitating new arrivals becoming self-sufficient, Afrikana’s services range from assisting individuals with various applications and connecting individuals to English language classes to providing mental health services and food from their food pantry in the Bronx on Thursdays and Harlem on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. They are also succeeding where the City is struggling by assisting people secure IDs and connecting them with organizations in other parts of the country that are able to resettle new arrivals who want to leave New York City.

Each of the services currently provided have been informed by Adama’s own experiences as a new arrival. For instance, she recalled consistently being provided referrals and the challenge of navigating these on her own since service providers did not follow up with other organizations on her behalf or facilitate a warm handoff. Afrikana therefore approaches referrals differently. Volunteers accompany new arrivals to the various places they are being directed. Similarly, as part of Afrikana’s effort to “dismantle systems” that don’t serve or honor people in need, Afrikana does not require a referral letter from another agency confirming hunger nor do they distribute the same prepackaged items to those who come to their food pantry. Instead, they allow people to choose the foods they want.

What is evident from the demand for Afrikana’s services is that it fills a critical void in the social safety net, particularly for many new arrivals from countries without a developed cultural network in New York. Prior to the current influx, the City lacked advocacy groups, community centers, or hubs to help acclimate migrants from countries such as Venezuela, Georgia, or Mauritania. But something Adama identified from her own experience is how “when you’ve already been impacted by a system, you know how to navigate it.” Leveraging this knowledge and the fact that new arrivals are unable to legally work while waiting to receive work authorization, Afrikana utilizes new arrivals as volunteers. This has multiple benefits – enabling the new arrivals to develop job skills, building community among those with a shared culture (or at a minimum, experience), and providing Afrikana with volunteers critical to its work.

A volunteer and Adama discuss the day’s plan to assist migrants. (Source: Eliana Perozo / Chalkbeat)

Further, Afrikana is a much-needed advocate and resource for Black migrants who are often overlooked by the existing system. To begin with, the City has failed to provide meaningful language access to those who speak Wolof and other languages unavailable on Google Translate or Language Line. Similarly, many of the OSHA training programs for new arrivals are unavailable to those who do not speak English or Spanish. Accordingly, Afrikana provides Metro Cards and requires Black migrants who do not speak English or Spanish to enroll in English language classes provided by UndocuBlack to help remove the communication barrier critical to navigating the social safety net system and surviving in the US. In addition, because Black migrants are not immune to systemic racism endemic to our criminal justice system, they disproportionately receive citations for quality-of-life offenses. This trend continues to be compounded by being unsheltered and the disparities in shelter placements as illustrated by the fact that Black migrants disproportionately lined the sidewalks outside of the Roosevelt last summer and more recently outside the reticketing center at St. Brigid’s. On top of this, there are limited free immigration legal services available to Black migrants, no TPS or other pathway to fast-track work authorizations for them, and not a great deal of advocacy for such. Needless to say, without advocates like Adama and Afrikana filling the void and advocating on their behalf, many Black migrants would be left to languish on our streets.

Because Afrikana does not have paid staff and relies solely on volunteers, who, as noted above, are largely other new arrivals, the organization is impacted by the recent 30- and 60-day limits on shelter stays. More specifically, as Adama noted, “when you’re being passed around every 60 days . . . you’ve got to sit in a waiting area to get a bed, meaning you can’t come to the office to volunteer, nor can you go to work or attend school.” Accordingly, Afrikana desperately needs assistance from anyone willing to volunteer. Tech savvy individuals and those who speak French or Arabic are particularly encouraged to volunteer, but anyone willing to show up and assist in any way is greatly appreciated. Service opportunities include assisting with the food pantry, connecting individuals with needed social services, or completing forms such as applications to rent an apartment or secure SNAP benefits. For those unable to devote even a few hours at Afrikana, donations are needed for culturally sensitive clothing, office supplies or financial contributions to fund Afrikana’s operations.

Migrants process applications for other migrants at the center. (Source: Eliana Perozo / Chalkbeat)

With the ongoing surge of migrants at the Southern border, Adama predicts that, in addition to people from Latin America, there will continue to be new arrivals from various places in Africa such as Sudan, Burkina Faso, and the Congo. As such, Adama and Afrikana will undoubtedly continue to model what it means to be a compassionate community for countless tired, poor, homeless, and tempest-tossed new arrivals seeking a new life in the home of Lady Liberty.