More than 130,000 people seeking asylum have arrived in New York City since the spring of 2022, looking to start a new life in the United States. In a city known for its statue in the harbor welcoming immigrants and with a population that speaks more than 200 languages, this influx has nevertheless stretched the Big Apple’s resources thin—overwhelming shelters, schools, and immigration systems. Many of the migrants are families with young children, who face a range of difficulties, from the trauma of a difficult journey to the United States to unstable housing and language barriers in their new schools. 

Throughout 2023, NYUers from across the university have responded. In collaboration with New York City agencies, they have volunteered their knowledge and skills in the rush to accommodate and support the new residents.

“We're honored to be able to contribute what's, perhaps, our most valuable resource—the time and talent of our students, our faculty, and our staff to this critical work,” said Gigi Dopico, NYU’s interim provost, at a recent event with the New York City Mayor’s Office.

Here are just a few of the ways many in our community have come together to lend their expertise.

studnets Cameron Roberts and Anna Frey

Student volunteers Cameron Roberts, left, and Anna Frey

Applying for asylum

To help migrants complete and file applications for asylum, the Mayor’s Office established the Asylum Application Help Center in June 2023. Asylum seekers schedule one-on-one appointments, where volunteers, supervised by immigration lawyers, help them to complete an application that can take several hours per person.

NYU is leading a consortium of local colleges and universities sending student volunteers to the center, with each institution sponsoring three days throughout the fall semester. Over 170 NYU students (both undergraduates and law students), faculty, and staff registered for the 60 slots allotted for  NYU volunteers to provide  application assistance at the city-run site in Midtown Manhattan. Together they contributed more than 500 hours of service over the course of five days in fall 2023.

“This experience was so impactful for me because, with the context I’ve learned in my International Human Rights class, I wanted to do whatever I could to help the migrants in New York exercise their right to asylum,” said Anna Frey, an NYU sophomore in Global Liberal Studies, focusing on Law, Ethics, History, and Religion. “Their stories about what they have endured have changed my perspective on the world around me and have made me want to find more ways to help.”

Taking care of teeth

One little-discussed challenge facing children arriving in the U.S.: poor oral health and a high prevalence of cavities. Research shows that refugee children face many obstacles to receiving dental care, including cost, different cultural norms and beliefs about oral health, difficulty navigating the health care system, and language barriers.

NYU College of Dentistry’s Department of Pediatric Dentistry has been working to lower these barriers by providing a range of services to children—often where they already are. For many children, these interactions mark the first time they are seeing a dentist, said Rose Amable, clinical assistant professor of pediatric dentistry at NYU Dentistry. 

dentists perform a care screening on a child

NYU Dentistry's outreach programs bring dental care to kids in New York City public schools, including hundreds of children from asylum-seeking families.

A key way that Amable and her colleagues connect with migrant and asylum-seeking families is through outreach events organized by the New York City Department of Education to provide resources to families living in the city’s temporary housing. At the Open Arms resource fairs, hosted by The Shed cultural center four times a year, faculty and students teach families about oral health, examine children’s teeth, and apply fluoride varnish. Thus far, they’ve provided education to around 1,200 families and about 300 children have benefitted from screenings and care at these events.

On an ongoing basis, NYU Dentistry provides dental care in New York City public schools and Head Start centers. In several high-need schools—including those with large numbers of migrant children—students are seen twice a year for cleanings, fluoride, sealants, x-rays, and even filling cavities and extractions. When children are seen at an outreach event or in school but need more in-depth treatment, they are referred to the pediatric dentistry clinic at NYU. For children without insurance coverage, care is provided at no cost to families, thanks to funding from New York City Council and the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation.

Beyond caring for teeth, Amable—a native Spanish-speaker—is often communicating directly with parents to educate them about oral health and encourage them to bring their children to NYU for follow-up care. “One of our biggest challenges is getting kids to the College for treatment, but we do everything we can to get them here,” said Amable. This might include arranging for a rideshare to pick the family up at the shelter where they are living and bring them back after their appointment, a cost covered by the grant from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation.

The healing power of art

NYU Steinhardt’s art therapy program has been facilitating art therapy sessions for asylum-seeking parents and children living in emergency shelters in Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. Six to eight art therapy master’s degree students spend two hours every Saturday morning at one of the shelters, working with children and their families to make dolls, pillows, beaded bracelets, and other art projects. The sessions are held in the cafeteria areas of the shelters and are attended by 40 to 50 people.

dolll created through art therapy

Dolls are among the "comfort objects" that can be created in art therapy sessions.

NYU students and faculty typically visit shelters where social services have not yet been established, and so their mission is to be welcoming and attempt to create some normalcy within the family dynamic, explained Marygrace Berberian, clinical assistant professor of art therapy and director of the Graduate Art Therapy Program. Despite holding weekly workshops since early in the year, they have only visited the same shelter twice.

The sessions offer a distraction from the trauma the families have experienced, space to work through their emotions, and time for parents to support each other, explained Seung Yeon Lee, clinical assistant professor in Graduate Art Therapy. Lee said they chose projects that yield “comfort objects,” such as pillows, dolls, and bracelets, that can be shared with family and help with recovery. This month the projects will have winter themes—trees and gift boxes and snowflakes, said Lee.  

In addition to working directly with the asylum seekers on Saturday mornings, Steinhardt students work in schools where the children are enrolled, and Berberian offers school-based workshops for parents to help them recognize their children’s response to trauma and how to address these responses.

“They are traumatized. They are fearful that they will be tracked down,” Berberian said of the families who attend the Saturday sessions. “They remain terrified.”