Monday, June 12, 2023

How these East Village volunteers finally made Wi-Fi a reality for asylum seekers

Photos and reporting by Stacie Joy 

It has been a never-ending challenge to navigate the red tape and bureaucracy since the city quietly established the East Village respite center for asylum seekers in late May, but we can report some much-welcomed progress.

This past Wednesday, Father Seán Connolly from St. Brigid/St. Emeric met with MedRite reps and the NYC Mesh Wi-Fi install team as we strategized how best to get equipment in place to provide access to the hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers at the former St. Brigid School on Seventh Street and Avenue B.

We toured the roof (where we all stared at the thick yellow wildfire smoke and smog that coated the sky), the electrical room, and the basement and looked in on some classrooms (currently being used as sleeping quarters lined with cots) with window access.    
I'm not this tech-savvy, so I zoned out during line-of-sight, nodes and hubs conversation and used the time to check in with a few of the people who are staying at the site. A gay couple from Russia mentioned (via Google Translate) that their "kidneys are freezing" and requested a mattress or pad, or pillow, and blanket. Two men from Mauritania asked for shoes. I assured them we are getting them in as quickly as possible. I wish I spoke French, as so many asylum speakers here do. 

Then, just when I think we are ready for the Wi-Fi installation, the site supervisor alerted us that approval has not been granted — despite the earlier letter drafted by Father Seán and the church. So the NYC Mesh team is back to square one. 

Paul Gale, a board member at the East Village Community Coalition and tech wizard co-creator of the peak-pandemic era What's Open in the East Village site, bought and donated a T-Mobile hotspot that someone can plug in at a nearby location, and we awaited word on the efficacy of that. 

We disbanded for the day and prepared for Thursday's planned distribution, although the ominous and dangerous air quality casts doubt on this. 

By the following afternoon, the air quality improved enough that we felt safe to do the distribution, although we scaled back the duration and size. While volunteers ran clothing and supplies from the drop-off site at 107 Avenue B, I got everyone on board for the planned Free Store: Site supervisors, MedRite staffers, OEM and security personnel, and officers from the 9th Precinct who are stationed at the site for round-the-clock police presence as mandated by the Mayor. 

The asylum seekers helped the volunteers set up the tables and then patiently waited in line as we got items sorted. We had fewer people today due to the atmospheric conditions. But by now, the system is in place and we had items sorted into categories quickly. Bags up front so each shopper can fill their sacks with needed supplies. Clothes, then bedding and bath, followed by personal care items. Shoes line the wall with a chair nearby so folks can try them on for size.
An EVG reader and volunteer named Helen arrived to assist the lone Mandarin speaker. It turned out that Helen's parents are from the same province as the woman, and they talked about basic needs of the asylum seekers and other challenges they are facing. The woman was relieved to have someone to speak with. 

At the end of the night, she showed me a Google-translated note on her phone thanking us.
Hilary, an EVG reader who lives near the site, donated two soccer balls to the Free Store, and they were a big hit, with impromptu matches breaking out. It was Mauritania vs. Colombia up first. 

We also heard back from the precinct officers trying to get the donated supplies to the Police Academy Gym respite center site in Gramercy Park, but they have, once again, been turned away. An officer lamented, "There has to be a way to get this stuff to the people who need it." 

Meanwhile, the NYC Mesh team mapped out a plan to install equipment on the rectory of the church next door on Avenue B, which will allow access on the courtyard and some of the north-facing windows of the school. The team, helmed by Brian Hall, works for hours getting it up and running, and by the time we left at 8 p.m., dozens of folks have signed on and are receiving service!
Paul made a sign with QR codes and a multi-language approach, and we start handing them out and getting them posted within the building. 

Now limited Wi-Fi is available in two locations — the back of the building with Mesh and in front of the building with Paul's T-Mobile hotspot. This admittedly limited WiFi, which doesn't stretch into the central portion of the building, will allow the asylum seekers to make their immigration calls and check-ins and also message family and friends.
There are smiles. People here could use some much-need positive developments.

If you'd like to volunteer, the next — and last planned distribution on the calendar — is tomorrow, Tuesday, from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Please show up at 107 Avenue B during that time frame to assist.

Thank you to all the community members who have taken the time to donate or help out — the effort is truly appreciated.


hywel dda said...

If you're donating clothing, a quick presort into men's or woman's would be a GREAT help.
There are no children at this center so children's clothes are not needed.
Thanks to all who've donated with amazing generosity.

Laura Goggin said...

To Stacie and everyone helping with this - you are absolutely amazing!

dianalimbicsys said...

This is truly award winning local journalism.

Anonymous said...


Sarah said...

Truly amazing work, Stacie and all the volunteers involved. My head would have exploded a hundred times over dealing with the uncaring bureaucracy here.

translation workshop said...

I speak French--when would be a good time to come by?

jpgale said...

@translation workshop "Tuesday, from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Please show up at 107 Avenue B during that time frame to assist." Thanks!

Eden Bee said...

My Spanish and French were so bad but it didn't matter much! Please volunteer it really helps out a lot!

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know how to help the refugees staying on Third Avenue in the old police dormitory? Who can we connect with there?

Ann Shields said...

If you have children's clothing and shoes that you want to donate, EVLovesNYC would be happy to accept them Sundays between 9:30 and 3pm at the Sixth St Community Center (638 E 6th St, New York, NY 10009). We also need extra large men's shoes, if you've got them. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Think about setting a GO FUND ME for this. There may be people who want to help who are disabled or don't live in NYC but are following this amazing story and want to help.

Anonymous said...

@anon 3:54 I live near the 20th street location. There is no formal outreach. For the past few weeks, I have just been bringing over bags of supplies and waiting until someone sheltering there comes out. I hand over the bags and ask them to share with others. So far, so good. My Spanish is terrible, but kindness and one on one connection is always understood.

Anonymous said...

Reading through this saga, it's clear that the only way anything actually gets accomplished in this city is via the generosity (in every respect) of those who volunteer.

It would be fair for Mayor Swagger to hand over his most recent several paychecks to be used for the benefit of the migrants. Our citizenry has proven that THEY can get done what HE cannot.

ak-ev25 said...

Wait - why is today "the next — and last planned distribution?" I've been collecting some backpacks and was planning to drop things off sometime next week. You guys (Stacie) have been a great resource of updates and information! Please keep us updated? Many thanks!