Advocate Helps Shelter Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Harlem

Ameya Biradavolu held a notepad, pen, and documents as she led a group of new social service interns into the food pantry at the shelter in Harlem on a recent Monday afternoon. 

As she instructed her interns, staffers called her from various directions. “Ameya! I need your help with something,” one yelled. Biradavolu dashed over.

Biradavolu is the executive director of the WANA Community Resource Center in Harlem. WANA stands for We Are Not Afraid, a shelter located on West 126th St. in Harlem that serves homeless asylum seekers and refugees. Biradavolu works with a team of volunteers, interns and staffers to provide up to eight guests with a safe place to stay for six months to a year in addition to legal aid. 

The shelter also operates the R.D.J., named after former volunteers Robert, Daniel, and Jones, a refugee shelter program that provides legal and immigration assistance. 

Mayor Eric Adams declared a state of emergency on Oct. 7, stressing that the rapid increase of asylum seekers being bussed into New York City almost everyday from Texas is generating a “humanitarian crisis.” More than 17,000 asylum seekers have arrived in New York City since April.

Asylum seekers face a long process—on average one to two and half years for adjudication—with limited public funds and essential resources. WANA is one of the few shelters in the city to provide specialized assistance to asylum seekers.

At WANA Community Resource Center, the entrance of the side door leads into the shelter’s food program. Stacks of boxes of food are usually neatly stacked against the wall within the wide, open space. Non-perishable items, cans, and meat are rearranged and sorted onto rollable shelves. A laminated list detailing how many items a family is entitled to is attached at the front. Towards the end of this makeshift market, a staffer awaits to check bags and collect documentation.

“I would be dead if it was not for the shelter,” said Abdullah Almansor, 25, a former resident.

Almansor was undocumented and fired from his under-the-table job in early 2020. He quickly ran out of options, so he researched and visited the shelter to apply for residency. However there were no spaces available for him. Almansor gave his contact information to Biradavolu and was placed on the waiting list.

“I was one day away from being homeless after running out of money and being evicted from my home. Suddenly, I got a call from Ameya telling me there was a bed available for me,” said Almansor.

Through the R.D.J Refugee Shelter program, Almansor said, he was able to file for and obtain legal status in the United States and work authorization. The process from green card holder to stable worker took a little over a year. And, once he felt financially secure, he left the shelter in February 2021. 

Almansor later quit his job to work at the shelter. He now manages the facility overnight two nights a week, and hopes to become a full-time staffer.

“When someone does a favor for you, you have to return the favor,” he says. “The shelter saved me when I was at my lowest.”

Biradavolu, 27, grew up in Brooklyn and graduated in May from Columbia University’s School of Social Work. She started working at the shelter five years ago, directing its food programs. She managed a small team, assembling and organizing boxes of nonperishable food and distributing them to those in need.

In 2019, as the informal organization transitioned into a registered nonprofit, Biradavolu became interested in case management for asylum seekers. Since incorporating, WANA has sheltered about 150 people, she said.

Although a New York native, Biradavolu comes from a family of Indian immigrants, and was “exposed to the lack of mental health resources that many people of color had while growing up in New York,” she says. “My family history reminds me of a lot of the clients at the shelter. So working in this field came full circle to me.”

Edafe Okporo, a Nigerian asylum seeker, helped create WANA and transition it into a nonprofit and served as its director until June. Okporo migrated to the United States in 2016 to escape severe mistreatment such a imprisonment or death –for being a homosexual in his home country. Okporo is now a global gay rights activist.

The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs reports that if asylum seekers continue to enter the City at its current rate, the total population within the Department of Homeless Services will exceed 100,000 individuals next year. Groups like WANA are being stretched. 

WANA uses a building that previously housed St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, the nonprofit receives no city funding, according to Biradavolu. Instead, it relies on donations from foundations and individuals. The shelter’s total revenue is about $308,000 according to its 2020 990 report.

It takes a big team of volunteers to make the services happen at WANA. Shirrell Felder, 59, the food coordinator of WANA, said that growing up in the 1980s, she faced many of the same situations as clients today—unemployment, food scarcity, and living in shelters. Every Saturday, Felder and volunteers form Mobile Outreach, making 60 to 100 sandwiches to distribute to the community. 

Biradavolu “is the backbone of this organization,” Felder says. “She truly recognizes different needs of the community, not only through food but also through other outreach activities.” 

Just before a 3:30 p.m. food meeting, the team danced in unison to a popular TikTok song—laughing and clapping as they recreated a popular video trend to post on the shelter’s Instagram account @wanacommunitycenter. Brittannee Boyce, 28, danced front and center. Boyce has been with the shelter for two years and is now an AmeriCorps VISTA food volunteer.

“I see food as a need for this area,” Boyce said. “A lot of people do not have the privilege to access or afford food.” She has found Biradavolu “very intuitive,” she added, someone who takes “initiative to kick-start programs aimed at improving the lives of others.”

Biradavolu also oversees the AmeriCorps VISTA, a one-year paid national service program, postgraduate social work internships and the Citi High School volunteer and internship program.

Emma Calkins, 25, a graduate student in New York University’s Silver School of Social Work, was matched with WANA for community service. 

“I have worked with asylum seekers and refugees in the past, so when I learned that this is the only place here in New York that helps that specific group of people, I knew I wanted to get involved,” Calkins said. Biradavolu, she notes, “has a wealth of knowledge about immigration and nonprofit management.”

Looking ahead, Biradavolu plans to conduct more outreach, expand the shelter’s online presence and recruit others to get involved.

“A lot of people are depending on me; a lot of people are depending on us,” Biradavolu said. “I remember one day coming up from the train station and thinking ‘Oh my gosh, there’s eight people relying on me to connect them with lawyers, find housing, and to solve their case.’”

She found that realization “super overwhelming, but it was also a moment where I wanted to prove myself even more, and help these people find refuge in a new found land.”

About the author(s)

Esther Animalu is a student journalist at Columbia Journalism School, she hopes to specialize in business reporting and long-form investigations.