Fordham faculty and students worked with women asylum seekers to design a new website that helps this vulnerable population gain access to health care services and other resources in New York City. Women can use the website to understand their rights in the U.S. and to find local medical practices that will accept them regardless of their immigration status—and they can do it all anonymously.
“The idea is to support women who are seeking asylum and to make their transition and waiting period more bearable and sustainable,” said Marciana L. Popescu, Ph.D., website co-founder and associate professor in the Graduate School of School Service. “We want the ability to preserve confidentiality and anonymity for online visitors. This is extremely important because we’re dealing with a population that lives in fear.”
More than 79 million people are displaced worldwide, according to a 2020 report from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and more than half are women. Tens of thousands are in New York City alone. Few attempt to seek health care services in fear of deportation, and the pandemic has worsened the situation, especially for women asylum seekers, said Popescu.
Her Migrant Hub was built thanks to a $150,000 grant from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation. In addition to accessing resources on the site, asylum seekers can share best practices and meet women who have experienced similar struggles. The project began in January; the website was launched in late June in honor of World Refugee Day.
“It’s designed by the women, down to the colors that are used on the website, the images, the graphics, the logo, the website name itself—everything was done collaboratively and driven by the women who are part of this group,” said Dana Alonzo, Ph.D., website co-founder and GSS professor who specializes in mental health.
Showing the Experts What’s Missing
The website was developed by a team of about 20 people, including a Fordham graduate student and an alumnus. Because Her Migrant Hub was developed in conjunction with the target audience—the women asylum seekers themselves—it is unlike many resources developed by experts and scholars, said Popescu and Alonzo.
“They are teaching us what it means to be an asylum seeker, to live in NYC and not be able to get the services you need,” said Alonzo. “They are looking at the website and saying, ‘This is what we’re missing.’”
Among them is Marthe Kiemde, 36, who fled political persecution in Burkina Faso with her husband while pregnant in 2016. She said that during their first four years in the U.S., they raised their newborn in New York City shelters, where they also received career training and got back on their feet.
“I know many immigrant women who are struggling right now. They don’t know where to go to get any services, especially in health care. They are afraid to go because they don’t have any papers … But this website is secure,” said Kiemde, who helped research immigration and childcare policies for Her Migrant Hub and now works as a hospital dietary associate. “With this program, we’re going to help many, many women.”
Another website collaborator is Vanessa Rosales-Linares, 40, an asylum seeker from Venezuela. She said she was an anesthesiologist who fled her native country in 2017 with her husband and 8-year-old daughter after giving medical treatment to government protesters and fearing punishment from political leaders. Rosales-Linares said she now wants to help people who were once in her position.
“[The website has] good information because it’s from many people who have in the past had the same problems. They are telling their histories and teaching how to improve their situation for new immigrants,” said Rosales-Linares, a website designer for Her Migrant Hub and a nursing student at Lehman College.
‘A Window Into What Is Happening’
In addition to providing local health care resources, Her Migrant Hub simplifies the asylum seeking process and an asylum seeker’s rights in New York City through text and graphics. It also provides an online forum where women asylum seekers and allies can share their experiences and read stories that help them feel less alone, said Popescu and Alonzo.
This fall, the website will launch several new features, including expanded translation services; a workshop webinar series designed and co-taught by women asylum seekers; and Her Migrant World, an educational page that takes a deeper look at global migration and the people at the center of it all.
“We hope that Her Migrant World will be a window into what is happening and why people take so many risks to come here and the reality on the ground,” Popescu said.
‘This Feels Like Home’
After project funding ends in December, Popescu said she is confident that her team will continue to make a difference in the lives of women asylum seekers across the city. Within their team, they have also found a home.
“We talk all the time. All our joys and sorrows started to be shared in the group, so the group provides support,” said Popescu, adding that they chat via WhatsApp. “At our second meeting or so when we first met, one of the women said, ‘This feels like home.’”