“They Didn’t Know That We Were Here”: New York’s African Asylum Seekers

Sophie Kouyate had been living undocumented in New York City for more than a decade when she was referred to African Communities Together (A.C.T.), a small nonprofit organization, in 2015. One of A.C.T.’s organizers helped Kouyate apply for legal status. “She bring me up,” Kouyate said. “Like, I was on the ground. And she said, ‘Sophie, you can make it, if you want it, you can make it.’ ” Two years ago, after Kouyate finally obtained a green card, A.C.T. offered her a job. “You better pay me good,” Kouyate recalled telling her new employers. “Because now I have my papers.”

Kouyate was born in France. Her father was born in Guinea, her mother in the West Indies. When she was twenty-two years old, she decided to move to New York City—she hoped that it would be less racist than France. She met her husband in New York, and had three children. (Her oldest teaches third grade at a Harlem charter school, and her middle child is a captain of the men’s basketball team at SUNY Maritime.) Now Kouyate is helping people navigate their very first days in town. She and her colleagues at A.C.T. are frontline workers in New York City’s ongoing migrant crisis. “It is a crisis, point blank,” Kouyate said. “A humanitarian crisis.”

City government officials say that at least a hundred and ten thousand asylum seekers have arrived in New York City since last summer. Some sixty thousand are being housed in the city’s homeless shelters, at an astronomical cost. Many are from Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador, but thousands have also come from Mauritania, Senegal, Burundi, Chad, and other African countries. For years, African migrants have been reaching the U.S. by flying first to Latin American countries with laxer visa rules, and then embarking on the long overland journey north from there.

Every week since the start of 2023, hundreds of newly arrived African migrants have found their way to A.C.T.’s office in Harlem, which is on the second floor of a former public-school building on West 127th Street. Many migrants hear about the organization through friends of friends, or on social media. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, A.C.T.’s dedicated drop-in days, the line to get into the office stretches down the school’s linoleum hallways. When I stopped by recently, three young West African men were hovering near Kouyate as she did paperwork. She made a joke in French, and the men laughed.

This year, A.C.T. staff have helped Muslim immigrants obtain halal food in the shelters and space for prayer. They have helped parents (and not just African parents) enroll children in school. Kouyate spoke with pride about two young Guinean men A.C.T. had worked with who had applied for asylum, obtained work permits, found an apartment together, and signed up to be delivery-app workers. The nice stories, however, were outnumbered by the grim ones. This past June, A.C.T. staff helped sound the alarm after hundreds of African immigrants were transferred to a shelter in outer Brooklyn that had limited running water and air-conditioning. “No restroom, no shower,” Kouyate said. “They call that shelter? No, that was a…

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