New York City’s African Problem

There’s always been a large African community in Harlem but lately I have been noticing small groups of young African men walking around the streets. I live all the way east on First Avenue and 101st Street, an area without much foot traffic and now I am seeing these boys almost daily.

You can see the culture shock on some of their faces and a sense of disappointment. Last year when the migrant situation reached crisis level with people sleeping on the street outside the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown, someone in my African community was asking where these Africans were coming from, how they ended up being bused from Texas and Florida with together with migrants from South America.

I read a article that most of these guys are Senegalese who have somehow found a route to Texas or Florida from South America then they get bused into New York City. If you want to see the full extent of the problem, take a walk along the area known as ‘Little Senegal’ on 116th St between Lenox Avenue and Frederick Douglass Avenue.

You can barely get past because there are men standing everywhere and their food delivery bikes nearby. There are also vendors selling second-hand shoes and coffee, specifically catering to them. I also witnessed one young man throw a piece of trash onto the kerb after eating something and an older vendor made him pick it up.

Some shopkeepers on 116th St have cordoned off the area in front of their shops to stop the migrants from blocking access for their customers. Hospitality establishments in the area have become a sanctuary for some migrants trying to escape the cold. One time, on a cold day, I went for a meeting in the Starbucks on Frederick Douglass Avenue and a a large group of guys who looked Somali, came in, each bought a coffee and sat there for the rest of the evening.

One time I overheard a barman at Harlem Tavern saying that they get guys who just come in to order a Coke to just while away time until closing. I have seen a guy at BLVD Bistro do the same thing on a cold day. Downtown in the wholesale district below W 32nd St and Broadway, someone was complaining that the vendors who buy their goods there have started to camp there at night.

Before I came to the US for the first time, I believed the streets of America were paved with gold. Then I went to school in Los Angeles, I was shocked to see such a massive scale of homelessness in the city where Hollywood is located. People in Africa do not think there is poverty in America.

Someone is selling this dream to these young men in Africa that if you just get to America, you can make a fortune quickly and easily find work. Instead they find themselves in homeless shelters then they have to leave within 30 days because they do not have a family.

The Senegalese community is well-established in New York City and normally they offer a lot of social support to their people. There has always been a network which helps new arrivals to find apartments, immigration services and even work, but now everyone is overwhelmed. Religious organizations, nonprofits and city agencies cannot keep up with the pace of new arrivals.

It’s not just the Senegalese and East Africans pouring into New York City to seek their fortunes. Africans from other countries are coming in through other means. If you look all over Africa from Cape to Cairo all you see is bad leadership and broken economies. There are very few employment opportunities for young people so they look for a way out.

Many families in Africa rely on remittances which are sent by a family member abroad in Europe or the US. What they don’t know is that this family member might be working 2 or 3 jobs just to send money home every month. The biggest challenge with the US is that even if the immigrant is highly educated, they need to have papers to work and very often the foreign credentials are not accepted.

I, myself have two degrees in pharmacy from Zimbabwe and the US. My early years were spent working a full-time job in finance, training in the evening at Rite-Aid pharmacy in Grand Central Station and studying for my pharmacy equivalency exams during every spare moment I had. After 2 years of working at that pace, my finance career took off and I got burnt out studying because I was only half-way through the pharmacy course. Basically I was taking the degree all over again. My cousin in Dallas just passed her CPA exam after working as a care-worker for years because they did not recognize her accounting credentials from Zimbabwe.

The African population is growing rapidly in New York City and it is going to take a village to support and help everyone. Certain communities like the Ethiopians help their own and can usually help newcomers to find a job. East Africans are very entrepreneurial so many of them are business owners and they invest together.

I love how Kenyans try to hook each other up with jobs, even if it is just care work. When you are new, even menial jobs are hard to find in America. Southern Africans tend to just look out for their family members and that’s about it so when someone new arrives in the community, they do not want end up burdened with a stranger, even if they are from the same country.

Moving to a new country is hard and there is a steep learning curve. In Africa at least you have family to help out, even if you are facing hardship. It would help if Africans who have lived in the US for a long time share their knowledge with new arrivals.

The government and the city can only do so much but if someone who has been through migration can offer guidance, it goes a long way. The biggest challenge facing African migrants is getting work papers and finding housing.

New York City already had a shortage of housing before the migrant crisis and now it is worse. New Yorkers with housing vouchers are competing with migrants for housing. However, there are a large number of rent-stabilized apartments which lie vacant in the city because landlords cannot afford to renovate them due to rent control.

Developers are also shying away from building affordable housing after the expiry of the 421 tax abatement program. There are a lot of nonprofits in New York City that offer housing support services but not actual housing. If these nonprofits actually bought some of these unprofitable apartment buildings and renovated them, they could help New Yorkers with housing vouchers.

After all, there is no pressure on nonprofits to make a profit and they are getting a lot of funding from the city just to dish out vouchers that are difficult to use. There has to be a better way to running these #housingprograms in #NewYorkCity to help migrants and voucher holders struggling to find houses.

I emailed the city to ask how the real estate community can help with the migrant crisis but they are yet to respond. I just registered a nonprofit, Nyasha Inc. but I need to figure out how to help. If you have suggestions, please email debbie@nyashaafrica.org.

Deborah is a Real Estate Investment Specialist

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