The Power Of Sisterhood: Raising $18,000 To Help Undocumented Bangladeshis

Photo via the Hanif sisters.

KENSINGTON – Shahana and Sabia Hanif are two Bangladeshi-American sisters who call Kensington their home. Both are active in the community in their own ways. Sabia is a talented henna artist who is now on her personal journey to get closer to God. And Shahana is running for City Council. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with.

A few weeks ago, they launched the COVID-19 Survival Fund for Undocumented Bangladeshis in Brooklyn, to help the community they love so dearly.

It all started two months ago when New York State went into lockdown. Shahana and Sabia began making wellness check-in calls to figure out how exactly COVID-19 was impacting the predominately working-class immigrant neighborhood. The conversations they were having with community members were mostly in Bangla because that is what they understood. And because of that, many neighbors had difficulty accessing resources that were not immediately translated.

Eventually, through word of mouth, Shahana was receiving calls from people who were ineligible for unemployment benefits and would not be receiving a stimulus check because they were undocumented. And because of that status, they were receiving nothing from the government including food stamps, unemployment insurance, and stimulus checks. The City did announce a $20 million fund that will assist 20,000 immigrant workers and their families with direct, one-time emergency relief, but the details of that remain unclear.

Initially, the sisters compiled a list of 29 people who needed funds to survive. Now, they have 45.

To get the funds for their community members, Shahana and Sabia went to the community itself. They started a LaunchGood campaign and noted that “100% of the funds raised will be distributed as cash grants up to a maximum of $1,200 per person to align with the federal stimulus check.” As of today, the campaign has raised close to $18,000, and on Sunday, May 3, they distributed their first $10,000 of cash gifts to 20 community members, who each received $500.

“It’s an injustice that essential workers are facing the brunt of the impacts of this pandemic. While there have been local efforts by our City Council to protect essential workers by proposing hazard pay, paid sick leave, and reclassifying gig workers, we needed these guaranteed rights before COVID-19,” the sisters told Bklyner. “At this moment, the 45 undocumented people on our growing list don’t have a guaranteed job waiting for them. They are without savings because almost all of their earned money goes toward rent and bills.”

“All of them are afraid of eviction despite the extended moratorium,” they continued. “The fear around homelessness is accelerated because of their undocumented status.”

Shahana (left) and Sabia. This photo is part of a series called Coronaheros photographed by Anna Rathkopf. (Photo used with permission)

While raising money for their neighbors, the Hanif sisters (along with other volunteers) have also been delivering groceries in Boro Park and Kensington (walking distance, of course). For them, this benefits both the people receiving the groceries and the halal/Bangladeshi businesses. And while delivering groceries, they realized something else.

“We realized food and supplies were not enough and that there needed to be a monetary mutual aid infrastructure and a redistribution of wealth,” they said. “We know there’s enough wealth in our neighborhood and in this city to give every undocumented person $1,200 (the federal stimulus grant). We have enough to give more.”

As of now, the survival fund will be going directly to undocumented Bangladeshis in Brooklyn. Why Bangladeshis?

“We saw a critical need on our block and responded, the same way individuals and organizations are raising for the communities they represent or know to be abandoned because of a myriad of issues that continue to leave out undocumented immigrants,” the sisters said. “That being said, through our mutual aid work, we’ve been supporting our neighbors with small scale financial donations, grocery deliveries, calls to seniors, and more. We will continue this work as long as we need to regardless of their background or circumstances. Some of our friends are even inspired to replicate our hyper-local effort and support undocumented ethnic communities across their neighborhoods.”

For Shahana and Sabia, their sisterhood means organizing together to help their community and making sure no one is left behind. That is their goal, they explained.

“We love Brooklyn and will continue to root for the best for our borough. We have seen many changes in our city over the course of three decades, including the influx of undocumented Bangladeshis,” they said. “We believe in organizing for change – food and money are not enough. We want our undocumented family members and neighbors to have rights and live a dignified life. We will continue to support them as they mobilize and organize among themselves for a just future.”

To donate to the LaunchGood campaign, check out the page here. 

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Zainab Iqbal

Zainab is a staff reporter at Bklyner who sometimes writes poetry in her free time || zainab@bklyner.com

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