As Ramadan begins, NY mosques serving migrants struggle to pay the bill

Before breaking his fast on the first day of Ramadan, Imam Omar Niass opened his bills.

He tore open an envelope from Con Edison: an electric bill for $7,950.03. Another was a water bill: $10,962.76. His account was 90 days overdue and “seriously delinquent,” the letter warned. “Pay now before enforcement actions begin.”

For more than a year, Niass has allowed any needy migrants — currently about 100, most of them Muslim and from West Africa — to sleep in his mosque in the basement of his North Bronx home. But as he’s taken in more migrants, fewer longtime congregants have come to the mosque due to a lack of space, and he’s stopped receiving donations. He said he’s emptied his bank account to follow his religious and moral duties to care for the poor.

“I need help,” he said. “If nobody help me, we just pray for God.”

A migrant from Mauritania fingers prayer beads while waiting to be processed by U.S. border authorities on Dec. 5, 2023, in Lukeville, Arizona. A surge in border crossings has sent thousands of West African migrants to parts north, including New York.

John Moore/Getty Images

Niass’ mosque, Jamhiyatu Ansaru-Deen, is among the several throughout the city being stretched thin and struggling to pay bills as they shelter and care for a growing new wave of West African migrants landing in New York City.

And Ramadan — which began earlier this week — poses another financial struggle, with more worshipers to feed during twice-daily religious meals.

Imams with some of the roughly 20 mosques helping migrants said they are hoping the holiday’s emphasis on charity will help them take in more donations to keep operations running, but it’s unclear how much more money congregants can give.

The imams said they’re hoping the city will provide more help despite them receiving little to no financial support so far.

Helping immigrants, we don’t stop. Ramadan, not Ramadan, we’re still doing it.

Imam Cheikh Ndao at Darou Salam Islamic Community in the South Bronx

The mosques’ expenses, running into the tens of thousands of dollars a month at some locations, are among the hidden costs borne by religious institutions, nonprofit organizations and other groups caring for migrants – on top of the $10.5 billion the Adams administration said it will spend on migrants’ care and shelter through June 2025.

Some 180,000 migrants have come to New York in an influx that began in April 2022, with an estimated 65,000 still in the city’s care.

At the Muhammad Ali Islamic Center in Harlem, Imam Mohamed Sangare said he’s mulling a monthly repayment plan to pay back $20,000 in debt for unpaid electricity bills tied to migrants’ care.

And many Fridays, Imam Cheikh Ndao at Darou Salam Islamic Community in the South Bronx asks worshippers to help chip in to pay monthly electric bills, which have nearly doubled to $2,000.

“You know, the community’s been doing that,” said Cheikhou Ann, a community health worker for the Immigrant Health Initiative at the New York-based Institute for Family Health, who assists migrants in mosques across the city. “So we don’t know if they’re gonna do more because of Ramadan. We hope.”

Newcomers on the move

The mosques are among a small, relatively new network of local African institutions serving migrants from West Africa.

As the number of Africans crossing the U.S.-Mexico border more than tripled last year, the number of migrants in New York City shelters from West African nations also sharply increased. By the end of December, 14% of the 68,000 migrants in city shelters were from the majority-Muslim countries of Senegal, Guinea or Mauritania.

Earlier this year, Ndao opened up a separate mosque across the street from his original Darou Salam location to ensure there would be enough space for long-time worshippers.

In the new location, groups of sometimes dozens of new migrants sit on the carpeted floors during the day, apply for insurance and city IDs, and sift through boxes of their mail, before leaving in the evening. The commotion comes to a halt five times a day, as they gather in a group and face east towards Mecca to pray.

The mail is stacked high for migrants receiving IDs, health insurance cards, and legal documents at Darou Salam mosque.

Arya Sundaram / Gothamist

“It’s so much overhead — uncontrolled bills that you don’t even know how to cover,” Ndao said.

But, he added, “Helping immigrants, we don’t stop. Ramadan, not Ramadan, we’re still doing it.”

Mosques disproportionately strained

As the city has pushed migrants out of city shelters with 30- and 60-day limits on shelter stays, more have turned to ad-hoc living situations, including in crowded houses of worship, according to imams and migrant and housing advocates.

About 20 mosques across the city have become informal hangout sites during the day where migrants can rest, stay warm, charge their phones, and in some cases take showers, according to the nonprofit Interfaith Center of New York and other advocates working with migrants.

Eight of those mosques are currently providing shelter overnight, according to the center. To clear space for Ramadan activities, some imams asked migrants to leave and request beds in city shelters.

Immigrants from Senegal take part in an Islamic prayer at sunset while waiting with other migrants to be transported from the U.S.-Mexico border on Dec. 6, 2023 in Lukeville, Arizona. Thousands of migrants from West African nations have made their way to New York City, as part of an influx that began two years ago.

John Moore/Getty Images

While other faith-based institutions have helped migrants, mosques have disproportionately taken on the burden of sheltering new migrants, according to Interfaith Center of New York.

But local mosques — especially smaller West African congregations — often don’t have as many resources to pull on, said Brennan Brink, a center staffer working on migrant-related issues. He said other religious institutions assisting migrants have more savings or wealthier congregants they can rely on, whereas the mosques lack the same financial safety net.

The other houses of worship, Brink said, are “just in a different financial situation where serving the person in front of them is not going to put their infrastructure at risk.”

Ineligible for city shelter funds

The Adams administration launched a $75 million program last summer to provide funding and other aid for 50 houses of worship to become temporary shelters.

But currently only five faith-based institutions are in the program, according to City Hall spokesperson Kayla Mamelak, none of which are mosques.

Many applicants were rejected because they didn’t meet certain fire and building regulations. That’s especially the case for mosques, about 18 of which were rejected, according to Peter Gudaitis, the executive director and CEO of NY Disaster Interfaith Services, the nonprofit contracted to run the program.

Some other houses of worship that could potentially have met the requirements with a few fixes, including two mosques, didn’t want to agree to the terms of the city’s contract, he added.

Many mosques that applied were located in converted houses and commercial spaces that were structurally unfit to become shelters due to, for example, a lack of open space and fire exits, he said.

“This isn’t just about some rigid process that they want to participate in and they can’t participate in,” Gudaitis said. “There are bigger issues, safety issues.”

Imam Ndao at the Darou Salam mosque said he received $5,000 from the mayor’s office to help with migrant related expenses, but it hasn’t been enough to keep up with the growing costs.

He also applied for the faith-based shelter program but said he would have had to spend $84,000 to renovate the nearby location he found, to add sprinklers and adjust the bathroom, among other fixes. And he said the city contract wasn’t enough to cover the rent.

The city offered to help with some small fixes, like installing sprinklers, said Ann, the public health worker who frequents the mosque.

“But the rest, you have to do it on your own,” he said.

Feeding more people

For some imams, suhoor and iftars — the daily meals before and after breaking fasts — are only adding to their financial strain.

Ndao said his daily catering costs have jumped about $400 to accommodate an extra 100 to 200 people. Sangare said he asked congregants to pitch in for evening iftar meals: “‘Whatever you have as a food to break fast, bring everything.'”

That’s why every day of Ramadan, the Interfaith Center of New York is spending $22,000 to cater halal meals for 100 people at the neediest mosques across the city, according to Brink.

That’s on top of the $20,000 the nonprofit has sent so far this year to mosques helping migrants, mostly for their rent, electricity, and water bills.

On the first full day of Ramadan on Monday, Brink arrived at Niass’ home, carrying paper bags filled with takeout containers of lamb in peanut sauce from a West African restaurant in Queens.

Migrants inside boiled tea and distributed dates Niass bought, a tradition for breaking the fast.

Imam Cheikh Ndao at the Darou Salam mosque.

Arya Sundaram / Gothamist

A small group huddled inside Niass’ kitchen, cooking Senegalese food, including a lamb stew called yassa yapp and omelet sandwiches. Others sat on his couch and watched an African news program in French on the TV. Dozens more ate their takeout dinners below, on the carpet of the basement mosque.

Malek, 29, from Senegal, said Ramadan is a time to focus on his faith.

“You focus on your religion,” said Malek, who asked not to share his last name for fear of jeopardizing his immigration case. “Life is very difficult now. So when you are in Ramadan, you forget that.”

When Niass arrived later in the evening, he gathered the men in the mosque, and asked them to avoid congregating in the street and avoid bothering neighbors, and drawing more attention on the mostly residential block.

Niass said he wasn’t yet sure how he’d pay for the rest of the meals in Ramadan.

“What I eat tomorrow, I don’t know yet,” Niass said. “But God knows.”

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