The living room was muddy and foul when 16-year-old Prisma revisited her family’s apartment days after Superstorm Sandy washed through it last month. The furniture was tarnished, most of the family’s belongings scattered and in ruins. The home was uninhabitable.
“Everything was completely in a different place,” Prisma says. “It was really nasty.”
Prisma’s story is similar to that of thousands of others left immediately homeless by the winds and waters of Sandy. But, unlike many, her family can’t receive the same kinds of help that others are relying on to rebuild their lives.
Her parents, who asked us to not reveal their last name, are undocumented immigrants from Mexico. The storm wiped away Prisma’s dad’s business and he doesn’t qualify for unemployment disaster assistance, food stamps or small business loans.
While searching for a new apartment, the family of five stayed with immigration lawyer and friend, Lauren Burke, who heads Atlas DIY, an organization for immigrant youth and their allies.
“Undocumented families are much less likely to have insurance, they’re much less likely to own their homes,” Burke says. “They’re much less likely to have any of the support systems that we think about having in place for a natural disaster.”
Federal financial disaster assistance also isn’t an option for undocumented immigrants, unless one person of the household has a Social Security number. Luckily, because Prisma is a citizen, her family could apply for FEMA disaster assistance and recently received a check to help cover rent and damaged possessions.
Prisma says they also found relief and emotional support from their tight-knit community.
“For us, it was different than other families that are immigrants because we volunteer with a lot of different local organizations,” she says. “So, we were able to get help much faster.”
Without A Community
But Burke says many other immigrants, especially those with limited English, have been keeping under the radar in the Sandy aftermath for reasons like lack of access or fear of calling attention to their immigration statuses.
“I think the people that are hit the hardest by all of this are the ones that aren’t connected to any social service agencies,” Burke says. “They’re too afraid to answer the door when someone comes by with supplies, they’re the ones who aren’t connected to an organization and they’re the ones who we’re not hearing from.”
Rosa Maria Ramirez from Mexico was one of those people. The 53-year-old says she hasn’t been to any relief centers or food distribution sites since the storm slammed her house on Staten Island simply because she wasn’t aware of them.
“We need help,” she says in Spanish. “Not that much, we ask just for a little…only enough to help us rent a house.”
The gray exterior of her house resembles any standing home, but it’s crumbling on the inside. Ramirez cleans houses and her son, who lives with her, works in a bakery close by. Because they’re undocumented, they don’t qualify for FEMA disaster assistance.
Only recently was she contacted by “Make the Road, New York”, an advocacy group for Latino and working class communities. The organization is one of many that are looking for ways to provide financial assistance for those who do not qualify for disaster assistance or don’t know how to find it.
“It’s as if we came with nothing and have to start from the beginning,” Ramirez says.
Starting Over, Again
In Far Rockaway, Abdo Ellahabi also feels like he’s had to turn back the clock. He lost more than $100,000 after Sandy washed through his store, destroying all of the merchandise. Even though he’s documented and qualifies for federal assistance, he worries the help won’t be enough.
“I lose all the stuff in the store, only what you have in the high shelf, that’s safe,” he says. “Otherwise [everything is] finished. All the refrigerators, finished. All the stuff, finished.”
The 42-year-old from Yemen lives alone — his wife and three kids live abroad.
Even two weeks after the storm hit, you could count on one hand the number of customers who trailed into his store. Despite the lack of power and stench of expired milk, Ellahabi stood stiffly behind the counter, hands clasped together, waiting for business.
“Buy one, get one free!” he exclaims, pointing to the signs above the damaged cans of food. “And nobody wanna buy it.”
Ellahabi says it’ll take about two months for the store to return to normal: to fix the floors, walls and shelves. He also has to knock down a row of brand new refrigerators he installed just three months ago.
The drugstore is the third one he’s built since moving to America after the first two failed.
“It’s mine,” he says, as his eyes scan the disheveled aisles. “I don’t want to lose it.”