Facing COVID, Immigrant Communities Find Innovative Solutions

This story was produced in partnership with Yes! Magazine.

In April, as the impact of Florida’s shelter-in-place orders rippled through its communities, clients of the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center inundated the organization with phone calls to seek help in applying for unemployment. At peak, the North Miami-based center received nearly 200 calls per day from its mostly Haitian American clients seeking click-by-click instructions to navigate the unemployment site.

Clients of Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center line up in the parking lot of the community service organization’s offices, observing social distancing regulations. Photo by Leonie Hermantin.

The calls motivated Sant La to develop a computer literacy program for adults, most of whom are Creole-speakers working in the service sector. The pilot is set to launch in mid-November.

“It thrust us into a watershed moment,” said Leonie Hermantin, Sant La’s director of development, communications, and strategic planning. “It was coming, the need for technology, but it was exacerbated by COVID. That need became front and center during the pandemic.”

Faced with unique challenges—like language, technology, and immigration status—as the U.S. went virtual, immigrants are reshaping day-to-day interactions and perspectives. In communities across the country, COVID-19 and the movement for Black lives have created opportunities to build new business and service models, and even change social norms.

All the activity points to one thing: With COVID-19 upending lives, immigrants are once again forming new versions of themselves and their communities out of necessity.  In many ways, immigrants say these approaches and mindset changes will likely endure long after the pandemic.

“There’s something about immigrants that makes us almost expansive in our thinking, because in our neighborhood, the world meets,” said S. Mitra Kalita, founder of Epicenter-NYC, a nascent publication that aims to connect largely immigrant communities.

“We are rethinking norms,” Kalita added. “We are redefining the mainstream, instead of the mainstream always having to define us.”

Mutual Aid Models

Few can match the grit, creativity, and resilience of immigrants intent on making it in America. To succeed, many have relied on their networks or, for those who could, served vulnerable compatriots within their communities.

That’s what Jaclyn Reyes, a Filipina-American, saw as she observed her mother throughout her childhood in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Her mom Joy Reyes, a nurse practitioner/OB-GYN, worked two nursing jobs at separate hospitals and founded a women’s health clinic in Bellflower, California.

When COVID-19 struck New York City, where Reyes now lives, it was a no-brainer to connect health care workers too busy treating patients to go get food with struggling restaurant owners who needed patrons. Seeing the disproportionate impact on Filipino Americans, Reyes and four other volunteers formed Meal to Heal to bring food to frontline workers at hospitals in Elmhurst, Queens.

“All of our moms are nurses, and that was a big part of why we decided to deliver to hospitals,” said Reyes, an artist-in-residence at The Laundromat Project community art organization.

Kalita, the founder of Epicenter-NYC, got the idea for her information-sharing site when the requests for help began pouring in around her Jackson Heights, Queens, neighborhood. She began emailing groups of friends in search of needed items—from diapers to help navigating funeral arrangements—and to raise funds. Her emails quickly turned into a newsletter with more than 1,400 recipients. By now the topics have broadened, but the immigrant focus remains.

“With diversity and inclusion, the inclusion part means you’re always thinking about ‘who else?’ Who else needs this information? Who else can benefit?’” said Kalita, who is Indian-American.

Through her website and partnerships with ethnic media outlets, Kalita hopes more and more people will benefit from the content.

Washington-based Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC, a national civil rights organization, helped with the push for legislation to recognize immigrants’ unique needs during the pandemic. Its affiliate Advancing Justice-LA, in particular, helped disburse funds made available by the California legislature.

“The immediate needs from COVID are amplified in immigrant communities,” said Megan Essaheb, Advancing Justice-AAJC’s director of immigration advocacy. “A lot of the folks who were advocating for government services started forming their own mutual-aid fundraising.”

Increased Advocacy and Social Justice Awareness

While on-the-ground and mutual-aid solution work took place, Advancing Justice-AAJC continued advocating through Senate lobby visits, held virtually, where immigrants presented their cases to legislators. Inspired by the movement for Black lives, the organization has responded by providing resources to combat anti-Blackness and speaking out against systemic racism.

John C. Yang, Advancing Justice-AAJC’s president and executive director, said he has seen a shift among Asian Americans, particularly older people, in how they perceive African-Americans.  Part of that change is due to the anti-Asian sentiment many experienced at the onset of COVID-19.

“Up until now, many had not been sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movements,” Yang said. “The younger generation understands it and has a willingness to take action. We’re all part of this systemic racism that we feel.”

In New York, Reyes is part of that younger generation taking action. Her Meals-to-Heal has led to a street co-naming effort for a “Little Manila Avenue” in Woodside, Queens.

Left to right, Little Manila Street Co-Naming organizers Xenia Diente, Steven Raga, May Madarang, Jaclyn Reyes. Photo from Little Manila Street Co-Naming Initiative.

“In the Filipino community, not everyone thinks of themselves as being entitled to the same things another resident would [feel] entitled to,” Reyes, 33, said. “Immigrants still worry about participating, and being too loud, because of xenophobia and nativist attitudes. We have to continue to do that work to increase awareness so communities can advocate for themselves.”

Hermantin, the Sant La director in Miami, said teaching predominantly Haitian clients about systemic racism is part of the work required to uplift that community. For now, though, her group is prioritizing technology basics to the people who need the most help.

“The technology gap is certainly a social justice issue. It’s really where you see inequities because people can’t access basic resources,” Hermantin said.

With $10,000 in funding so far, Sant La will kick off a curriculum specific to the area’s Creole-speaking immigrant workers. The center is looking for extra resources and partners to scale the program later on.

“In coming from Haiti to the U.S., many of these people traversed a century in modernity – like plumbing and electricity,” Hermantin said. “Now, with technology, this piece that seems so insurmountable to them, we’re preparing to help them continue on to that next step in their journey.”

Community Support and Healing

COVID-19 and the police killing of George Floyd have brought on higher rates of anxiety and mental illness to communities across the U.S., according to the CDC and public health experts, respectively. Within immigrant groups, coping often means melding traditional healing methods with current realities.

To help people cope, Reyes is borrowing elements from the Filipino concept of communal healing, called bayanihan, and the tradition of having designated criers at funerals to create a storytelling video featuring nurses, physicians assistants, and local artists. She hopes the video will help community members cope with 2020’s tragedies and amplify their contributions.

“In a year of memorials and monuments, we have to recognize everyone’s efforts,” Reyes said.

Likewise, Edwin “Euro” Johnson, a Barbadian-American party promoter based in Queens, NY has had to modify his work to accommodate the times. After spending months indoors because of nightclub restrictions, he went to a backyard party in Hempstead, NY. There, the hosts conducted temperature checks before allowing people in, spaced out the tables, and required masks and hand sanitizer use.

People were grateful to enjoy the Caribbean tunes, despite the restrictions, Johnson said. Plus, the outdoor set-up is reminiscent of open-air parties common in the islands.

“We never needed a grand venue to throw a party anyway,” said Johnson, 36. “We’re resilient people. We don’t need to have four walls and a roof to have a great time.”

Now, Johnson has begun to organize small get-togethers in backyards as well and is attuned to spaces that can be repurposed for his parties, such as empty parking lots. The entrepreneur, who owns Cobain Entertainment, is also pursuing a catering license that will permit him to plan smaller-scale pop-up parties.

As someone who suffers from anxiety, Johnson said COVID-19 helped him realize how much he and many others rely on the entertainment scene to cope.

“A lot of people cope with mental and emotional needs by going out to see friends and family,” Johnson said. “We’ll never go back to normal. With Caribbean people in general, we have a way of adapting to situations [that] we’re put into to make the most out of them.”

Fi2W is supported by The Ford Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and anonymous donor and readers like you.

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