Murad Awawdeh is the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, which is the largest and oldest immigrant rights advocacy organization in the U.S. From greeting migrants at the Port Authority Bus Terminal with care packages to advocating for the New York For All legislation that would prohibit local police officers from enforcing immigration law, Awawdeh leads by example. One of the organization’s most recent accomplishments was working with the City Council to override Mayor Eric Adams’ veto for a set of housing bills that would expand rental assistance.
Awawdeh, the first Palestinian and Muslim executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, taps into his personal experience growing up as the son of Palestinian immigrants as the drive for his work. He knows first hand the challenges immigrants in this country face and has been advocating fiercely for immigrant rights for over two decades.
City & State sat with Awawdeh to discuss his vision for the immigrant community, his work at the New York Immigration Coalition so far and ways to respond to the ongoing migrant influx in New York City. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re very connected to your roots as the son of Palestinian immigrants, what does your identity mean to you and how does it empower you and motivate you to continue the work that you’re doing now?
My family came to the U.S. seeking a better opportunity for themselves and their children. And their immigrant experience is not very unique in comparison to other immigrants who come to the U.S. for opportunity and to achieve the American dream. So for me, my family rooted our experience here in the U.S. We came here to have a better life. And this is the better life and to me as a kid growing up, it became kind of my awareness to our situation was very clear that we were a struggling working-class family or struggling low-income immigrant family. Being Palestinian and being Muslim was sort of partial to that because when my family came here, they didn’t have very much community connection. We had a very close connection to back home and there was this assumption that once we “made it here” that was where we were going to go back. But it became evident as time progressed, that was not going to be the case. So we’re incredibly proud of our lineage. We’re incredibly proud of our Palestinian roots and being able to visit when we can. I think for us, being Palestinian and being of people who’ve struggled for decades at this point, and then coming to the U.S. and then continuing to have to struggle is something that really drove me to try and to create change for my local community, my city, my state and so on.
What is the New York Immigration Coalition doing now to empower other immigrants and respond to the current state of immigration, especially in New York City?
What are we not doing? The New York Immigration Coalition, being the oldest and the largest immigrant rights organization in the U.S., and leading in this moment, is truly remarkable. I think I’m the first Arab American and Muslim leading an organization that is solely immigrant rights. Yes, we do other work. Our mission is immigrant rights in the U.S. too. So my appointment in this organization was also pretty incredible. I think for us it’s really making sure that we’re delivering for all communities – regardless if you’ve been here 50 years or five days. We’re actually moving government and getting the support and services so that all New Yorkers can thrive here. I think growing up, I didn’t have very much, let alone the city did not offer any services. When my mom was going to the doctor, I was her translator at the age of 5, 6, and 7 years old. I have a 7-year-old now. I jokingly give him government documents and I tell him to fill this out and do it well, and he says, “What, I can’t even read this!” I really don’t want anyone to have to go through it. Making sure that we’re fighting for language access, making sure that we’re fighting for educational support for new learners and English language learners. I didn’t know English first, I knew Arabic and then I learned Spanish after and then English. As a child, my brain was not wired for English very early on. It made things a lot more complicated as I was integrating into school, but I picked it up pretty quickly. I want to make sure that the support that I didn’t have, my family didn’t have and my community didn’t have are readily available. Everything from education to financial literacy. We were never taught financial literacy in school, having real competent immigration legal services, especially for immigrants who can’t afford it for it to be for free. My family was taken advantage of by a number of attorneys who claim that there was a silver bullet for the immigration issues we were challenged with. It was all bull, excuse my French. I think for us, it was more so how can we do everything the right way. It was just that every time we did this, the stacks just kept getting stacked higher against us. The New York Immigration Coalition is an advocacy and policy organization that has coordinated services. And over the past year, we’ve actually responded to the increase in asylum-seekers coming to New York. And this is not a unique situation. Migration and immigration happens to New York every year, every week, every month – like it’s not unique. But what is unique about this situation is that this population, a good deal of them, don’t have a family or community connection, so they need to enter our shelter system. So in addition to fighting for immigrant rights, and expansion and protections, this past year we’ve been working really hard on ensuring that we’re addressing some historically broken systems, like our shelter system. It is incredibly hard to get out of the shelter system and is nearly impossible, especially for people with families. Your stay there will be at least two to three years, maybe four, and that’s if you have any form of status. If you have no status, you’re going to be there even longer. So that’s why we’ve been fighting for shelter reform and actually trying to reform the shelter system, so that people get out quicker. In addition to that, I think sometimes when people see our statements saying, “We want people to get out of shelter and into permanent housing, stop opening up these emergency shelters.” They say, “Well, where are they going to put people when they get people out?” They’ll be able to put more people back in and get other people out so that we are not continuously expanding an emergency system that does not work. And people are not even offered that. I think there’s this misconception that shelters like this is like staying at the Plaza Hotel. Some of these sites are really dilapidated. We just want people to have dignified living. And I think the only way that you’re really able to actually build a fulfilling life here or anywhere is with housing. Housing is your foundation. That’s where you’re able to have privacy. That’s where you’re able to have a sense of belonging, that this is your thing, your ability to be able to cook for yourself, to actually be independent. For us, it’s really fighting this past year for expanded services, expanding legal services, expanding our work in the housing arena, specifically on pushing back against more emergency expansion, and actually reforming the shelter system to allow people to get out quicker and then expanding access to the voucher system. We worked with the City Council on the housing package that just passed that the mayor then vetoed immediately. And then we worked with the City Council again to override it. I think that it’s unfortunate we had to do that. But I think that that was like a down payment. I’ve been saying this more and more now. We have two equal branches of government here in the city, the mayor and the City Council, and they need to work together better to be able to deliver for our people.
What challenges have you faced recently in your work with asylum-seekers?
The challenges have been not unique in the same sense that we’ve always been fighting for our communities. And yes, we’ve had different iterations of city government. We’ve had different iterations of state government. We’ve had different iterations of federal government, some even worse than what we have now, believe it or not, just a couple of years ago. So I think for us, it’s more so the biggest challenge has been what we’re seeing across the board. This is not just happening in the immigrant rights world, it is happening across humanity in this city, where I feel we’ve been burned out as a society for the past eight years because of crisis after crisis, like Trump running for election, that was a crisis. No one wants to call it that. But it was, it was a crisis in democracy, that someone who was running as a bigot, someone who’s running as a racist, someone who’s running who’s going to be exclusionary and isolationist and embraced white supremacy won the U.S. presidency. And then the impacts of that and him delivering on his promises, saying he’s going to ban Muslims, and then doing it, and then us having to fight back and mobilize at JFK to actually set the precedent for the nation to follow where our work actually sparked national protests at all the airports and then actually doing the legal service coordination at the airports was the weirdest thing but it had to be done. Then being able to support and represent people across the board throughout his four years. Then getting a President Biden, which is supposed to give you a sense of normalcy and make you feel comfortable in your skin. I think that goes back to this country’s historical issue with immigration, regardless of whatever community it is. There’s always been this sentiment of anti-them, so what we’re seeing right now is no different than what we’ve seen in the past. It just has led us to different types of challenges because there’s a trifecta moment, and we don’t have a trifecta solution. You have the kind of Spider-Man meme situation where it’s like, three Spider-Mans all pointing at each other, as opposed to someone saying I’m going to step up and lead every level of government to respond from the federal down to the local. We need them to take leadership in their arena and stop asking people for things that are not in their arena. I don’t think people know what city government’s supposed to do. I don’t think people know what state government is supposed to do. I don’t think people know what the federal government is supposed to do. So there’s like a massive education even within government of what the ask needs to be. This past year has been a challenge that we’ve had this kind of back and forth within government where it doesn’t feel like anyone wants to lead right now. It’s not the delivery of service. It’s not the lack of funding.
In your experience, what are some of the specific challenges that MENA immigrants face?
I think the MENA immigrant community has faced significant challenges similar to the global immigrant community, but also post-9/11. Before 9/11, MENA folks were “Caucasian,” post-9/11 they became “the other,” and in that moment, we became more surveilled. There was more heightened scrutiny on our community and every single action you took was more and more scrutinized. And just being a MENA person is hard, being a MENA Muslim is even harder. We have a long way to go. Our community is still an emerging community. They’re still growing here. While my family was able to come back years ago, we started seeing a much broader Middle Eastern and North African community growing more significantly over the past two decades post-9/11. For us, it’s more so being able to have the Middle Eastern and North African community really embrace their civic duty, and actually get them to be more engaged, that their issues are actually being addressed. We don’t have data disaggregation, which then limits our ability to actually get the support that we need for our community. At the end of the day, if you don’t have your data, you’re not going to be able to advocate as well as you need to. And then within the immigration perspective, Middle Eastern and North African immigrants are also in significant harm’s way constantly. Any interaction with law enforcement, similar to other immigrants, will lead to further federal law enforcement interaction. And that’s why some of the policies that we’re fighting for (in) New York City is really ensuring that all immigrants, regardless of who you are, have the ability to not just survive here but thrive here and really be able to meet the moment for every community. With the Middle Eastern and North African community, we’re no different than other communities here. We have a lot of different issues around poverty, around socioeconomic challenges that our families continuously face, but we also have to be transparent and honest that there’s a significantly growing pandemic, specifically on substance abuse. And that’s an issue that has been happening for years, and it started with the young people, and then it just grew very quickly around opioids. And then as opioids became harder to access, people started using other things because of addiction. Just being able to really meet the moment, being able to build the community, the beloved community that we all envision, collectively but within the MENA community is really important for me as well.
Both in the aftermath of 9/11 and during the Trump administration, MENA immigrants were singled out by the federal government and subjected to additional restrictions. Are there any steps the city and state governments can take to support these communities that have been targeted by the federal government?
Absolutely. And it wasn’t just the feds who stepped up to surveil and target the Muslim community – the NYPD that’s here locally. There was a complete unit that was tasked with surveilling our community and figuring out what’s happening in the Muslim community, really divided the community severely, and making it feel as if you couldn’t trust who’s sitting next to you in the mosque. If you said something negative about a city policy or state policy or federal policy, is that person going to go say something to law enforcement and really set you up in a really negative way? We’ve seen a number of people in our community get set up by these informants who were paid by our tax dollars and were paid by the NYPD to look into our community, and at the end of the day, there were zero cases that actually led to anything of significance. The only good outcome of it was that they were able to map out where to eat really good MENA sweets. I think for us, we have a lot of work to do. We have to ban the usage of surveillance technology on ordinary folks without a judicial warrant. We also have to ensure that the NYPD is not running rampant and surveilling other communities, including ours, without any real oversight. They shouldn’t be doing it, and if they are, it needs to be done in an oversight way. In addition to that, we need to make sure that every level of government is doing what they are intended to do again. Local law enforcement should be working to keep the community safe at the local level. At the state level, the state should not allow local law enforcement to participate with federal immigration enforcement. And there is a bill for that called New York For All that would actually prohibit state resources being used to move immigration enforcement. And that’s a public safety measure. New York For All literally comes down to letting communities be able to feel safe in asking for help if they need it, if they need to. We just came out of COVID, people died at home because they didn’t feel safe going to the hospitals. Being able to report a crime, or if you’re a victim of a crime, doing that and not having to worry that you are going to be turned over to ICE or Border Patrol because of your immigration status. At the federal level, the federal government needs to truly ensure that our data is safe and secure because as we’re seeing now, across the board with tech, all of our information is up for grabs. So how do we ensure that it’s being kept safely and that it’s not being used against us in nefarious ways? And ensure the federal government actually finally does real immigration reform that makes it fair and just and equal for people to be able to try to get into the country and provide people with legalization options for people who are here without it.
What are some ways in which MENA communities in the city have started to exercise their political and electoral power?
We’ve seen that in different parts of the state. I think that the MENA community has demonstrated its power electorally and continues to grow with everything from what’s happening in South Brooklyn, where they have the largest Palestinian community and also one of the largest Middle Eastern and North African communities. They’ve been really rallying to the polls ever since 2017. Same thing is happening in different parts of the state. You can look at Queens and Astoria, same thing there. Same thing that’s happening wherever there’s a Middle Eastern and North African community. They are coming out and they are actually really digging into their power at the ballot box. That’s happening not just here in the city. It’s happening in Western New York. It’s happening in Buffalo. It’s happening in Syracuse. It’s happening in the Capital Region where we had the vast majority of upstate communities revitalized by refugees, specifically from the Middle East and then other folks from Africa but there was a huge Middle Eastern community up there. That actually brought back the local community economies. Small businesses being able to actually have new restaurants, new businesses, new everything. That has really been driven by the refugee resettlement program up there that continues to thrive. Those communities now are voters. And it’s really important to see that our community, the broad immigrant community, the Middle Eastern and North African community, continue to be part and parcel of New York in every way from the fabric of our culture, cultural institutions, to the buildings have been built here, to the bridges, every single thing has an immigrant impact and I think that’s the beauty of it all.
What is your vision for New York City and for the immigrant community moving forward?
My vision is that everyone, regardless of where you come from, has the ability not only to survive here, but to thrive here. My family was able to make it only literally by a hair. And I don’t want families to have to struggle like that, regardless of where you come from, if you’ve been here for 100 years or 100 days. You should have the support you need to actually be able to thrive. What that does is allow our state to continue to thrive into the future. When you have more people who are able to individually thrive, that makes society thrive, and that makes every aspect from the economy up to our quality of life to society thrive. Being able to thrive is my vision. Ordinary people actually assuming their power. That’s the other piece I want to work on is making sure that people know what power they have. The power of their vote is incredibly important and that can help determine who makes these decisions on our behalf so that they’re actually taking action in more than one way of asserting their power in life and in our city and in our state.