Watch CBS News

Here's how New Yorkers across the city are trying to help asylum seekers

Meet New Yorkers who are trying to help migrants across NYC
Meet New Yorkers who are trying to help migrants across NYC 04:01

NEW YORK -- The migrant crisis has been a hot button topic in New York City, but across the five boroughs, there are those who are doing what they can to help asylum seekers.

Viburt Bernard, affectionately known as "Cookie," runs Sybil's Bakery and Restaurant in Queens. The family business has been a staple in Richmond Hill for nearly 50 years.

"We have ... Caribbean, West Indian, Guyanese food," he said.

His family are immigrants from Guyana.

"My mom came here with nine children, single parent, and I was only 14 when she came. I had a job immediately in Manhattan mopping offices," Bernard said.

That's why he takes pride in helping others.

"We cook in bulk. So that leaves you with one problem at night; sometimes we overcook and you have food left back at night," he said.

He was giving the leftover food to the dozens of migrant men who were living in the basement of Sarr's furniture store down on Liberty Avenue back in February. The businesses are on the same city block.

"He purchases food for them some nights, and some nights when I have really excess, I'm glad to give it to them," Bernard said.

Dave Sultan Khan owns the barbershop across the street, but also helps to keep the neighborhood fridge and makeshift library outside of his establishment stocked.

"You want to do something because you came as an immigrant," he said.

He too is an immigrant from Guyana who was assisting the asylum seekers from West Africa with haircuts, coats and hot tea.

"It was very sad and breathtaking because people will do anything to have a better life," Khan said. "They are sleeping in that basement. It is health hazard and it's a fire hazard for the building or the city, but where we came from, that's not a hazard. That is, we're embracing each other where there's somewhere warm to sleep."

The migrants have since been evicted, but the man who was housing them says he will continue to find places for them so they don't have to live on the street.

The compassion for the city's newest New Yorkers extends beyond Queens.

Imam Musa Kabba says dozens of migrant men who were found living in the nearby basement of a Bronx business attend his mosque daily to pray and take shelter in the day.

"When they come here, they start talking to us, 'We don't have no place, can you hold our luggage, our stuff?' We feel sorry for them," Kabba said.

Many are Muslim.

The city has been working with faith leaders across the five boroughs to help house migrants overnight.

"It's probably one of the most vulnerable periods of the day, especially during the winter. Instead of having migrants on the street or just wandering the neighborhood, it becomes a waiting center so they can find a safe, warm space," said Bishop Dr. R.C. Hugh Nelson, with Church of God of East Flatbush.

Nelson is one of about 10 faith leaders the city has partnered with so far to help house adult asylum seekers from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Inside the Church of God in East Flatbush, hundreds of asylum seekers sleep overnight. It has multiple exits and bathrooms and will soon have showers.

"What's quite heartbreaking is to see these fellow human beings to turn up in the middle of winter with all that they own wrapped in a container under their arm," Nelson said.

The city says over 185,000 migrants have arrived in New York City since last spring, and its 30- and 60-day shelter limit rules are working, but city and state leaders say it's adding to the existing housing crisis and pushing more people onto the streets and the subway system and forcing many to live in unsafe and illegal converted spaces.

So far this year, there have been over 3,300 illegal conversion complaints and over 4,000 inspections.

"It just means that people don't have any place to stay, and then that means they are in our communities, our neighborhoods, on the streets and more desperate," Assemblymember Harvey Epstein said.

Back in Queens, neighbors who have been helping their neighbors say, for them, it's a moral responsibility and a standard for humanity.

"What else am I supposed to do? People need help. They come in and need help," Bernard said.

The city says New Yorkers can help migrants, as long as it's done legally and safely. They have vetted several organizations for New Yorkers to connect with.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.