It was not the best day for an outside party: 55 °F and raining. But, on this early October day, Diana Viviescas and her brother, Cristian Rey, had no other choice. He left the city the next day for Chicago. Walking toward Hell’s Kitchen Park on 10th Avenue, they brought disposable plates, cups, and cutlery in a large shopping bag. There were also two plastic boxes of food, enough to feed four adults and two kids. Diana held a blue umbrella in one hand while she grasped her 9 year-old daughter’s hand in the other. Her husband, her brother, his wife and their 3-year-old son walked beside her.
Viviescas’ brother, Cristian Rey, is 28. He came to New York from Colombia in September, two months after his sister.
“Finding a job here is very difficult, people ask you to speak English or have papers, I have neither,” he said. He is hoping Chicago will be an easier place to find employment. He knows a Colombian man who lives there and works in a factory and has promised to help him get a job.
The family sat at a concrete table and unpacked the lunch. As Viviescas served everyone, the smell of pepper, cumin, garlic, and turmeric spread in the wind. She spooned out chunks of chicken and potatoes made with guacamole. “Can you believe I made all of that in a rice cooker?” she asked.
For the past 3 months she has been living in a room at Skyline Hotel in Hell’s Kitchen with her family. The rooms do not have kitchens, and guests are not allowed to cook. “We Latinos hide electric pans in our rooms,” she said.
Living inside the hotel with different families was not easy. “There are many fights, especially between couples”, she said. “The employees also shout a lot, I’m not used to people shouting at me.” According to her, many of the guests have difficulty speaking English and because of that, they are mistreated by the hotel staff.
The Skyline is one of more than 70 hotels being used as emergency shelters by the city of New York to help house asylum seekers. Since April, more than 21,000 people have arrived in the city, mainly from Latin America. Since July, the 232 rooms are all occupied by families who could not fit into the crowded New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) facilities.
There are 168 family shelters all around New York City which have the capacity to house 9,700 families. According to the last DHS data, as of late October, there are 12,118 families with children and 2,335 families without children being sheltered in NYC.
They decided to have their meal outdoors because people who are not sheltered in the hotel are now allowed to come inside.That means Viviescas could not invite her brother and his family to her room. Each time she leaves the hotel, she has to sign a sheet at the reception that tracks the names of every single person staying there. “It is a kind of control.” she said.
Rey, his wife and their 3-year-old son are staying at Park West hotel, next to Central Park, which is also operating as an emergency shelter. Rey used to work as an administrator for the government in Colombia but says that in the United States, he might have to try something different. “I have friends in Chicago working in factories, and that’s where we’re going tomorrow,” he said. “I want to work.”
Viviescas used to be a psychologist in Miraflores, a village in Colombia. She worked at the Institute of Family Welfare, which is a state entity that protects people in infancy, early childhood, and adolescence.
“In our village there is a huge presence of guerilla warfare,” said Oscar Fonseca, her husband. “She worked to prevent the recruitment of young people.” Foncesca says her work led to death threats, which is why the family fled the country.
The village of Miraflores was captured by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 1998. The spirit of the war never left the village, despite the 2016 peace agreement between FARC and the government. In New York, Viviescas and her family hope to receive a refugee visa.
At their small family celebration in Hell’s Kitchen Park, the kids chased pigeons and splashed in water puddles, while the adults took turns holding umbrellas and cutlery. They finished their meal and talked about their old life in Colombia. “Our house had three floors, three bedrooms, a big living room and kitchen,” Viviescas said. “Our life is very different now.”
As they finished their meal, the families began to prepare for the farewell. Viviescas called to her daughter to prepare to leave. “My name is Katy and I’m nine years old,” Viviescas’ daughter said while practicing her English. For the past two months, she has attended Public School 452, 10 blocks away from their hotel, where she has been learning the language. According to New York City, 5,500 children of migrants will be enrolled in public schools this year. “I have two friends in our hotel,” said Katy. “One of them lives in the presidential suite, it’s huge. I would love to live there.”
It is no longer raining when the families hug each other to say goodbye. “It will be bad to stay here without you,” Viviescas said as she looked at her brother.
“I wish you could stay.”