Volunteers help to give food away during a Thanksgiving food distribution event at Food Bank For New York City in the Harlem neighborhood on November 16, 2020 in New York City. Food Bank For New York City partnered with Stop & Shop and WBLS' The Steve Harvey Morning Show to give away turkeys, holiday boxes, and fresh produce to families in Harlem for Thanksgiving. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Volunteers help to give food away during a Thanksgiving food distribution event at Food Bank For New York City in the Harlem neighborhood on November 16, 2020 in New York City. Food Bank For New York City partnered with Stop & Shop and WBLS' The Steve Harvey Morning Show to give away turkeys, holiday boxes, and fresh produce to families in Harlem for Thanksgiving. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

In the absence of accessible government aid, immigrant communities banded together to provide food, shelter, and information. It shouldn’t have to be that way.

For Shahana Hanif, “resilience” during the coronavirus pandemic is something she finds difficult to discuss. The 29-year-old daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants doesn’t view “resilience” as a celebratory characteristic of her local community, but a sign of how the government has failed to look after the people while a virus has killed over 200,000 people in the United States. 

“The conversation of resilience is a tough one to have—because yeah, I mean, at the end of the day, pockets of mutual aid networks were built and they were built primarily by Bangladeshi women like myself,” Hanif told COURIER about her community. “And it shouldn’t need to fall on everyday people to chart out people’s survival.”

At the peak of COVID-19, Hanif raised over $40,000 to disseminate $500 cash grants as survival funds to undocumented Bangladeshis. She is running for New York City Council in Brooklyn’s District 39, and has dedicated most of her life to her local Bangladeshi community in the Kensington neighborhood. Hanif worked with organizations like Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM), an advocacy group for low-wage South Asian immigrants, to provide groceries and financial assistance to people who were, she says, “absolutely sidelined” during the coronavirus pandemic.

The biggest problems Hanif saw beyond the lack of direct government assistance was a failure to communicate clearly and in a language that was accessible for all communities, so they knew when shutdown orders were in place or were lifted, for example, or how to apply and track applications for what assistance was available. But in the absence of that, Hanif and others in the community stepped in. 

“I didn’t sleep for the first four months because I was flagging so many phone calls around food needs, around childcare needs, around unemployment insurance,” Hanif added. “Then, of course, rent protections, or tenant protections, and what’s happening with the rent in the city. All of these issues are being flagged by people. I was just basically a doctor taking calls around the clock to make sure people are informed.”

Hanif said she has become known as the go-to person for all questions and social service-related requests from her community members—many of whom are non-English speaking or undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants—during the pandemic. 

In addition to trouble getting information, there are the 725,000 undocumented immigrants living in New York City who were left without much aid or assistance from the city, state, or federal government. 

Amy Dia (name changed upon request) is one of those undocumented immigrants, displaced from her home during the pandemic. Fortunately, some of her friends helped raise money and provided her with access to food, shelter, and basic toiletries. 

“I consider myself extremely blessed,” Dia, the daughter of West African immigrants by way of France, told COURIER. “I survived the first wave of the shutdown with the help of both immigrant and queer communities who distributed food at low or no cost, made care packages, and brought other essentials just to make sure I was fed. I would hope that these programs can continue operating.”

Despite feeling blessed to have kind friends and mutual aid networks in undocumented and queer communities, Dia said her displacement and the reliance on other people’s generosity could’ve been avoided if undocumented people were also given government-sponsored financial relief. 

“Status should not determine who receives financial assistance,” Dia added. “We are the ones taking care of others’ children, making food, serving food, and providing services to other residents who sometimes dehumanize us. The lack of assistance makes us feel left behind; we deserve to be seen and recognized.”

Dia said that she feels increasing pressure to find work without financial assistance or legal protection from the government even though it will expose her to COVID-19. The stigma she faces is one that only other immigrants can understand, knowing that at any point, whatever amount of stability they have can be taken away.

“Undocumented people can solely rely on one group of people, and that is its own community,” Dia said. “As someone who is undocumented herself, we know that we are ineligible for most forms of aid, and thus have to sacrifice parts of ourselves in order to survive.”

This is precisely why Hanif takes issue with celebrating the “resilience” of marginalized communities. Their perseverance comes at a cost of involuntary or unpaid labor, fighting to survive over matters that most privileged communities do not have to think twice about. 

“So much of our resiliency is unpaid labor and we need more people involved,” Hanif said. “We need more people who are taking the torch and setting up community fridges or invested in community defense programs because, yeah, we don’t need more cops right now. We don’t need ICE in our neighborhoods at this time as we’re collectively grieving. For me, it’s a complicated issue around, well, how we’ve been resilient because I wouldn’t call this resiliency.”