Lawrence Osman Beah Bureh, an undocumented immigrant from Sierra Leone, was in New York when Ebola struck his country in 2014. While he was safe, his family back home was suffering. The government had imposed travel restrictions, and Bureh’s relatives could not transport the vegetables and rice they farmed to markets in the capital city, Freetown. With no way to sell their produce, they were struggling to make ends meet.
Bureh was not in a position to help. In the United States, he was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week processing money transfers and selling watches at a store in Harlem. The $1,000 he made a month was barely enough to cover his living expenses, and whatever he could spare went to his wife and two small children, who were living in Mauritania. Bureh had fled Sierra Leone for Mauritania in 2006, and had raised his children there before moving to New York, but his brother and aunts and uncles were still in Sierra Leone. Bureh had been unable to find a better job—one that would allow him to support his extended family—because of his immigration status.
Then, in November 2014, the U.S. government designated Temporary Protected Status, which is like a temporary form of asylum, for Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea—the countries that had been hardest hit by the Ebola epidemic. The designation enabled immigrants from these countries who were already in the United States to request work permits and other benefits. Bureh applied and was granted a work permit in May of last year that allowed him to work five days a week, legally, as a security guard. He said it was “one of the happiest moments” of his life. With his new job, Bureh hopes that soon he will have saved up enough to send money to his extended family in Sierra Leone.
Bureh’s respite may be short-lived, however. Immigration’s temporary visa program is granted for 18-month periods when exceptional circumstances, such as war or an environmental disaster, prevent immigrants from safely returning to their home country. The immigration relief for those from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea expires in May, and now that the World Health Organization has officially declared their countries Ebola-free, the Department of Homeland Security may decide not to renew the designation. This has left many in New York’s West African community, like Bureh, facing an uncertain future and the anxiety that comes with being undocumented, including the possibility of deportation.
“It’s a challenge to a lot of people who have forged new lives for themselves,” said Karina Edouard, a staff member at African Communities Together, an advocacy group that supports African immigrants in the United States.
Nationwide, relatively few West Africans have received the temporary protection. Just over 4,000 people from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone had qualified for the status as of January 16, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. But the immigration relief has had an impact in New York, which is home to a growing population of African immigrants, especially in the Bronx, where the number of West Africans has increased by more than 60 percent in recent years, and in Staten Island, which is home to the largest Liberian community outside Africa.
At a packed African Communities Together meeting on February 8, held at a community center in Harlem, immigrants from at least a dozen countries discussed immigration issues with lawyers and advocates. Bundled up against the frigid temperatures outside, they shared plates of fish and acheke, a West African dish made out of cassava.
“This program has helped a lot of people in our community, but it is expiring,” Amaha Kassa, the director of African Communities Together, told the group. “It’s going to run out unless we do something to change it.”
Community organizer Akinde Kodjo echoed Kassa’s message and encouraged everyone to contact his or her embassy and organize rallies in New York. “Africans, we have to stand up for ourselves. Nobody is going to do it if you don’t do it for yourself,” she said.
Kodjo is concerned that the effects of Ebola are still being felt in West Africa, and that new cases have been found in Sierra Leone this year. She said that work permits granted through the temporary status have enabled immigrants to send money to relatives overseas. She hopes the U.S. government will “give them a chance to renew it and keep their jobs and take care of their families, to be part of the American economy.”
African Communities Together and partner organizations helped eligible immigrants apply for the status last year, but some have only recently been granted work permits or are still waiting for a response. As undocumented immigrants, many had difficulty proving that they had been in the United States since November 2014, one of the eligibility requirements. Trinh Tran, a staff attorney at the Sauti Yetu Center for African Women and Families, said some immigrants had to ask for letters from the imam at their local mosque or provide receipts from the Western Union transfers they use to send money home as proof.
Elizabeth Fofana just got approved two weeks ago. She had applied in July, but had to send additional documentation, which delayed the process. Fofana came to the United States from Guinea 11 years ago and sends money home to her three children. She has struggled to make enough to do so by working at restaurants and as a babysitter, but hopes that her work permit will enable her to get a better job.
“There are no opportunities in Guinea, people are suffering. There is no income and no jobs,” Fofana said in French through a translator.
Katie Tichacek Kaplan, a public affairs officer at immigration services, said the Department of Homeland Security has not yet made a decision about whether to extend temporary protected status for immigrants from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. She said the agency would make that determination based on conditions in these countries at the end of the 18-month period in May.
In the meantime, Bureh hopes his work permit will lead to more opportunities for him and his family. He is trying to get his college-level studies in management accredited in the United States, and hopes to open his own business someday.
But for Bureh, the best part about his new immigration status has been finally getting to see his wife and children. Since he had arrived in New York in 2013 looking for work, Bureh’s children had asked the same question every time he called home. “Papa, when are you coming?” 5-year-old Oumar and 8-year-old Moustapha wanted to know.
Bureh, unsure of the answer, had always replied, “Ok, my children, take courage. I’ll come one day.”
With his temporary immigration status, he was able to apply for a travel document, enabling him to legally reenter the country. After two-and-a-half years apart, Bureh visited his wife and children in Mauritania last October. “It was a very happy moment to see them,” he said. “Everybody needs their family.”