It was around then that the New York Immigration Coalition, where he is executive director, started to receive notices in the mail for unknown people who were due to appear before court.
“The notice would say, “Hey, your immigration court date is X day, at this time, at this location. But we never knew who these people were. So, we were receiving people’s notices to appear who we had never engaged with,” he said on Sept. 19 at an appearance at the Lincoln Center campus.
A few weeks later, he said, people started showing up at the coalition’s midtown office, bearing documents that listed their home address as the office. Federal officials, they said, had told them that the coalition would provide them with housing, health, care, and legal services for free.
“We work to bring services to communities that need them—everything from legal services to adult literacy, education, classes on financial literacy, health care enrollment, whatever you can think of, we try to bring it into the community,” he said.
“But we don’t do housing, and we don’t do emergency shelter. We’ve never engaged with emergency shelter up until this point back in May and June. So, we quickly realized that this is bigger than we had thought.”
An Unexpected Influx of Arrivals
Awawdeh, a native of Brooklyn who had only just taken on the executive director role that month, didn’t know at the time that his group had been pulled into a crisis orchestrated by Texas governor Greg Abbott, who had begun busing immigrants from the border to cities such Washington D.C. and New York. An estimated 11,000 people have arrived in New York City since May, straining the city’s shelter system.
Awawdeh spoke about that crisis as part of “Coalition Building in New York Communities: A Conversation with the New York Immigration Coalition,” a conversation hosted by Kujegi Camara, assistant director for community engagement and operations at Fordham’s Center for Community Engaged Learning.
In a wide-ranging conversation and follow-up Q&A with audience members, Awawdeh addressed everything from the ways his organization has adjusted to the influx of immigrants to the ways he learned to become a community organizer.
For starters, the group now distributes at its offices “dignity care packages” with toiletries, PPE, and snacks to new arrivals. Immigrants are also given service guides that can help them navigate the various agencies that can help with basic needs.
“The service guide breaks down everything, from where to get legal services to health care to DOE enrollment for kids, and everything you need to know,” he said, noting that everything is packaged in a sturdy backpack.
“The reason why we give them book bags, and not just some plastic bag, is because people show up with nothing but their paperwork in their hand and their clothes on their back,” he said.
“So it allows them to put their paperwork somewhere safe. If they lose it, they’re going to have an incredibly hard time navigating the immigration system.”
The group also launched a Welcoming New York campaign, to ensure that every level of government is stepping up to support the recent arrivals.
An Evolving Focus in Helping Immigrants
When the coalition was founded 35 years ago, it was primarily focused on providing services, he said, but it gradually shifted to focus on coordinating with other service providers and then began advocating for immigrant-friendly policies. It currently has 200 member organizations in the state and serves between six and eight million people annually.
“A lot of our work in coalition buildings trying to bring together diverse voices, to be able to find the shared values that we all have, find an issue and a shared solution, and then fighting for that solution to become a reality,” he said.
He cited as an example the 2019 passage of the Green Light Law, which made New York one of 13 states that allow unauthorized immigrants to obtain a driver’s license.
The coalition has had to shift its priorities again in response to the convoys being sent from the border, becoming more involved in efforts to provide emergency housing. But Awawdeh cautioned that it is neither a new phenomenon nor is it one that will be resolved soon.
“There are an enormous number of issues that we’ve never had to deal with before that we’re trying to figure out now”, he said noting that when one also includes people who are not being bused by the Texas government, the true number of recent arrivals is probably closer to 15,000.
“It is an incredibly cruel and unjust system that just needs to be flipped on its head, and the solution isn’t going to just be a quick, rapid response campaign,” he said.
“We need to change our immigration system. It is not built to support people, it is not built to be just, and we’re going to continue to see horrific stories.”
Grateful for a Fordham Education
Awawdeh also talked about his own experience at Fordham. He initially attended Long Island University with the goal of earning a B.S. in biochemistry, but when his mother got sick, he had to drop out to support her and his six siblings. In 2013, he enrolled at Fordham’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies (PCS); in 2019 he graduated with a B.A. in organizational leadership and psychology.
“This is going to sound so corny, but I didn’t think I needed to get my college degree.
But when I went through the courses, the professors at PCS are folks just like us just living their lives, but they gave so much to every single student that it made it so much easier for you as a student to advance in your educational learning experience,” he said.
“So, I have to give it up to Fordham. I was super skeptical, and then they made me a believer.”