The Advocate

Mendieta-Cuapio speaks with Public Advocate Williams at Port Authority. An American flag can be seen hanging from the ceiling

Welcoming “New” New Yorkers With Dignity

December 22nd, 2022

An interview with Community Organizer Fabiola Mendieta-Cuapio

Lea esta publicación en español. Li piblikasyon sa a nan lang Kreyòl Ayisyen.

Advocates worldwide recently recognized December 18 as International Migrants Day, which raises awareness about the challenges and difficulties of international migration. Since this summer, New York City has welcomed thousands of new New Yorkers, many of them asylum seekers, arriving at Port Authority. New Yorkers have been working tirelessly to provide aid and a sense of stability to people in need, after a dangerous, arduous journey.

One person who has been on the ground to help migrants since day one is Fabiola Mendieta-Cuapio, Community Organizer at the Office of the Public Advocate. Mendieta-Cuapio spearheaded mutual aid efforts to feed hungry New Yorkers at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, through Brooklyn Immigrant Community Support (BICS). She also works to end traffic violence with Families for Safe Streets and is dedicated to promoting Indigenous human rights and immigrant rights.

Mendieta-Cuapio is able to connect with migrants in Nahuatl, Spanish, and English as they arrive in New York City. We’ve asked her to share her experience with welcoming asylees and ensuring they receive the ongoing support they need.

What do you think New Yorkers should know about the migrant situation?

Many of these people are beautiful humans and talented people—lawyers, accountants, barbers, teachers, and more—who are fleeing violence. If we can come together in a holistic way, they can bring so much to the table. They just need a seat.

This is not about power; it’s about providing services so they can find their way out of the system. Sometimes you just need a good circle of people around you to help you get out of the system, people who believe you can do so much more and who will give you the tools and resources you need.

What can the City do, moving forward, to ensure new New Yorkers are able to make a home here?

There is so much. The City has limitations, because it’s a matter of capital—dollars. I don’t think the Federal government is doing enough for the City to do the work. At the same time, New York City needs to do better. Our office, the Mayor’s Office, and other agencies are trying to work together, but we need more boots on the ground, to talk to people one-on-one, to check on them. We do our work as providers, but sometimes we forget that many of them are here alone. We need to make sure they are OK, especially families here with children, and single parents. I will always advocate for single parents; that’s a cause that is close to my heart.

The City should do more outreach to these families. Also, we can get creative. New York City wastes so much food every day; why not connect with local restaurants who have surplus food so we can provide culturally appropriate food? There’s so much we can do to address food insecurity.

Mendieta-Cuapio and the Public Advocate pose with advocates in Port Authority behind an Office of the Public Advocate resource table.

How can New Yorkers help migrants and asylum seekers?

Support mutual aid efforts and volunteer. There are organizations that will connect you with families, one-on-one. Open your heart to these people and give them some of your time. Sometimes people really need a smile, a hug, a “Welcome to New York!” I talk to families everyday. It’s powerful to host families, send cards, reach out to advocates, donate some time to connect and hear the asylum seekers’ stories so you can understand why they left home. They had no choice. Now they’re here, but they’re alone and have gone through a crisis.

We need to know that there are minors and young people who are under 21 who make the journey by themselves. We have so few resources for them, and they can fall through the cracks. I’m talking to young girls everyday who are already so desperate. They don’t have food, we’re trying to get them out of the shelter system, and they can’t get a job. The level of need makes them vulnerable to exploitation, because there is nothing in place for them. The City is focusing on families and children, and I don’t think we do enough for young adults. New Yorkers can help these young adults to ensure they don’t fall through those cracks. They have so much to offer our city.

Many elected officials around New York City and State are doing amazing work, including with mutual aid organizations, but everyone can be doing more. New Yorkers should reach out to their elected officials and ask, what programs are you working with in particular? Ask, are these programs effective, and can you connect me with those groups?

Many asylum seekers are from Venezuela. But we should be mindful that migrants are from all over the world. There are people from Haiti, West Africa, including Senegal, and elsewhere. New Yorkers who speak different languages or who have connections to these countries should get involved. Your help will be invaluable.

Many newly arrived people are experiencing huge mental health challenges. What they’ve been through, and what they’re going through, is extremely hard. Beyond material support, we need to recognize the mental health impact. As Public Advocate Williams recently stated: "In the wake of a second asylum seeker losing their life to suicide, and in anticipation of another increase in arrivals, we must examine the holes in our service infrastructure, especially in the area of mental health, to help prevent future pain.”

What are some vital resources that anyone arriving in New York City should know?

Newly arrived immigrants can find many resources via Documented. These immigrant resources are also available in SpanishDocumented NY gathered these resources from mutual aid organizations on the ground like BICS. Any new New Yorker who needs help can reach out to the Office of the Public Advocate and our team will share vital information.

Interview with Community Organizer Fabiola Mendieta-Cuapio conducted by Mirielle Clifford, Senior Digital Media Strategist, on December 16, 2022

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