Aiding asylum seekers in NYC

by Eve Warburton and Tanya O’Carroll

Advocacy campaigns have improved the process by which asylum seekers are paroled from Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey, according to Dr. Allen Keller. / Tanya O’Carroll

Four months ago, a middle-aged man from West Africa arrived at JFK airport having escaped political persecution in his home country. With no English or contacts in the United States, Michel searched for someone who looked African and might speak French. He approached a taxi driver outside the airport who by chance knew of a large West African community in New York where someone might be willing to help him. Michel’s story is not unusual among the countless political refugees who arrive in New York City each year hoping to be granted asylum.

Approval of an asylum case can take as long as 15 years in the United States. During the interim, immigrants often have to survive without the documents necessary to find employment or are held in immigration detention while their court cases are pending. Even when an immigrant is granted asylum or paroled from detention, the tasks of finding housing, purchasing food, learning a new language and securing an income are overwhelming.

Beyond these practical challenges, the isolation many refugees feel upon arriving to their county of asylum is, perhaps, the heaviest of burdens. Many political refugees have also been victims of torture in their home countries and live with ongoing physical and psychological repercussions. Without a support network, accessing assistance is virtually impossible. So while much media and human rights advocacy has, in recent years, focused on the illegality and appalling conditions of mandatory immigration detention, far less attention is paid to the gaping hole in social service provision for newly arrived asylum seekers.

There have, however, been local efforts to fill the gap. In 1995 a small team of doctors and psychologists at the Bellevue Hospital in New York responded to what they identified as a startling lack of service provision within the hospital for patients seeking treatment for torture — most of whom were also asylum seekers. Their initiative grew in to what is today New York’s only comprehensive torture treatment center — the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture (PSOT).

Since its inception, the program has offered wide-ranging care to an approximate 2,000 asylum seekers living in the city. Directed by Dr. Alan Keller, the program provides treatment for victims of torture, engages in local and international research and provides training for health care professionals and social workers focused on effective service provision for torture survivors.

The PSOT supports some 600 clients at any one time by providing free medical services, therapy and psychiatric care. It is unique in that it recognizes that effective torture treatment cannot be divorced from the daily struggles most clients face surviving in the city. They also, therefore, provide access to free legal and social counseling, interpreting services and support with finding housing and employment.

But even with support, there are very few places that newly arrived asylum seekers can turn for shelter in New York. Nancy Murakami, Director of the Social Services at PSOT, identified housing as the most significant practical problem for refugees in New York City. Christ House and the Seafarers Hotel are long-established institutions offering shelter to refugees in NYC, but there are never enough beds.

In 2004, one of Columbia’s human rights professors, Dr. Joseph Chuman, took the initiative to address this need. The result was the Bergen County Sanctuary Committee, an association of six houses of worship that provide a small number of refugees with food and housing, access to social workers and lawyers and education and medical care. Expenses are steep, and the program relies on funding from its member groups and the donations of sympathetic individuals.

Finding enough community members to volunteer as hosts and open up their homes to those seeking asylum is a challenging task. Some clients may stay with a host family for a few weeks; others have stayed as long as two years. The commitment is significant, and not many people feel able to sacrifice their time and privacy. Still, the Sanctuary is able to offer comprehensive services to a small number of clients and intends to expand the program in the coming years, funding permitted.

Dr. Allen Keller recently gave a keynote address at the Bergen County Sanctuary Benefit Dinner, where he commented on how advocacy campaigns in New York have improved the process by which asylum seekers are paroled from Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey. While this is a huge step forward in protecting the rights of asylum seekers, he emphasized that, “the work and the demand for the Sanctuary Committee is only going to increase.”

Once granted asylum, refugees like Michel face a daunting future — and too often they face it alone. With the help of someone from the West African diaspora, Michel was put in contact with the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture and now has the vital medical and social care that he needs. The initiatives and collaborative efforts of lawyers, health care professionals and local community members in New York City — like the Bellevue and Bergen programs — offer refugees nothing short of a lifeline. However, such services are being stretched to their limit, and increasing demand makes them even more crucial.

For further information on these services, visit and

Published in RightsNews Volume 29, no. 2, February, 2011.
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