To keep migrant students in their Brooklyn schools, activist parents try finding them housing

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By Dan Sears

Activist parents in Brooklyn are scrambling to keep migrant children at their current schools after the city evicts them from their shelters.

Some parents of children who attend P.S. 139 in Ditmas Park have posted flyers asking for help securing apartments – or even rooms – for migrant students and their families. Other parents have opened their kitchens to migrant families at nearby P.S. 315 in Midwood so they can prepare traditional foods like arepas, which they sell to neighbors to earn money for rent.

The efforts come as migrant families face a 60-day deadline to leave their current shelters and reapply for new beds somewhere in the five boroughs – a process that could disrupt their children’s educations. Parents said some of the migrant families at the schools will be evicted from their shelters as soon as Saturday.

“There’s lots of places that are saying, ‘We don’t want immigrants in our community,’” said P.S. 315 parent Carrie Gleason. “And it’s the exact opposite around here. We welcome these families and are really worried about them being pushed out.”

The efforts to help around 40 migrant families at both schools are among a number of such efforts in communities across the city, and contrast with an escalating backlash against the new arrivals.

Last week, James Madison High School received a bomb threat and hate calls after the city had migrants sleep in the school’s gymnasium overnight due to concerns about flooding at the Floyd Bennett Field shelter. School administrators opted to have students stay at home for remote learning the following day. The ordeal went viral, outraging Republican politicians. Billionaire Elon Musk tweeted that the migrants “will come for your homes.”

Seeking new shelter

In recent days, Bianca Bockman and fellow P.S. 139 parents have been posting signs around their neighborhood seeking space for the school’s 16 migrant families to sleep. Her daughter’s classmates and their families are facing eviction from nearby hotels serving as shelters as soon as this weekend.

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“We are a small group of parents from P.S. 139 who would like to see our kids’ schoolmates stay safe and in the neighborhood,” reads one of the fliers. “They’re part of our community, they’re part of our classroom, they’re friends with our kids. No one in the community wants these people gone.”

This week, the group launched a GoFundMe campaign to cover the families’ housing costs, which has raised more than $11,000 as of Friday morning.

“Families with children … will have to reapply for shelter placement, which is not guaranteed. Additionally, these families may not be placed in shelters in their current neighborhood, which will be devastating for the community and disruptive to their children’s schooling,” reads the GoFundMe. “We are raising funds to help four families secure at least a month’s worth of temporary or permanent housing within or near the neighborhood.”

Cooking up income

On Thursday morning, four migrant parents were putting every inch of Flatbush resident Megan Demarkis’ kitchen to use as they prepared 200 orders of homemade arepas before picking their children up from P.S. 315.

Johan Herrera was kneading dough – a mix of cornmeal, water, salt and butter – according to a recipe that has been in his Venezuelan family for generations.

“It’s traditional in Venezuela, the arepa,” he said. “For breakfast, for lunch, for dinner, any time. … If you meet somebody who doesn’t eat an arepa, it means they’re not Venezuelan.”

His partner Evelin shaped the dough into circles, which she placed on baking sheets. Their friends Daniela Polanco and Victor Carillo mixed together fillings – shredded chicken and avocado; egg, onion and tomato; or beans and cheese – and bagged the arepas for customers.

Herrera said he worked in the food industry in Venezuela, but fled because of extortion and threats from government officials. He said his family traveled by boat, rode atop a train, and hiked the Darien Gap, sidestepping the bodies of those who died making the journey. In Texas, he said they were told officials didn’t want them there and then given the choice of boarding buses to New York, Chicago or Denver. Herrera said they chose New York because his daughter wanted to see the city, but added that they’ve been met with a mixed reception since arriving.

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Herrera said his family has encountered multiple anti-migrant protesters – near Floyd Bennett Field, where they’re living; outside Madison High School, where they sheltered from the recent storm; and even at what was supposed to be a rally in support of migrants in Manhattan. Herrera said they try to ignore it, and focus on the many families who are trying to help them.

“There are people who discriminate against us because we came here. The problem is not with us, the problem is with those people,” he said. “We are used to it. And I am grateful for [the people] that work with us.”

Herrera said he dreams of opening a restaurant in Brooklyn.

Demarkis said she hopes lending out her kitchen will help her new neighbors feel welcome, while giving them a chance to make money and get back on their feet.

“The whole point is embracing people who are new to New York City [who] show all of the things that we love about New York – hustle, compassion, industriousness, persistence – and giving them an opportunity to put those skills and values to work,” she said.

Soliciting suitcases

Some 25 migrant families have joined the P.S. 315 community since last fall, prompting parents and staff to transform a multipurpose room into a free store with coats, warm clothes, books, toys, and most importantly, suitcases. Many migrants urgently need luggage to carry their belongings when they are evicted from their shelters.

Some neighbors have been collecting and distributing items on their porches. Families have also connected migrants with immigration lawyers and helped them get medicine and treatment for illnesses that have spread through their tents at Floyd Bennett Field.

Gleason said it’s wrong that the city is uprooting the families after school staff worked so hard to integrate the new students into classrooms.

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“These kids are going to leave and new kids are going to cycle through,” she said. “It’s a waste of resources, and they’re making a difficult situation tremendously harder.”

Mayor Eric Adams has defended his decision to impose 60-day limits on shelter stays for migrant families, saying the city has gone above and beyond to help the new arrivals.

“We fed, clothed and cared for more than 170,000 asylum-seekers who entered our care since the spring of 2022,” Adams said in his budget address this week.

“More importantly, we have put migrants on the path to self‑sufficiency by helping them submit over 27,000 applications for asylum, work authorization and temporary protected status. We have also helped more than 60% take the next steps in their journeys.”

Outside the school entrance on a recent frigid morning, Gleason directed a group of migrant mothers to a nearby house where suitcases had just been dropped off for donation.

“We need the suitcase because we’ll be leaving the shelter next month,” said Mariama Barry, who said she fled an abusive marriage in Guinea and has been living at Floyd Bennett Field. “We don’t know where they are going to take us.”

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