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City of Immigrants

‘They Either Die Outside or They Come Inside and Survive’: Ebou Sarr Won’t Stop Sheltering Migrants

An interview with the African immigrant who set up illegal shelters for dozens of recently arrived migrants.

Ebou Sarr at the furniture store he manages on East Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx. (Hell Gate)

Last month, Fire Department officials, responding to a call about illegal e-bike battery charging, found dozens of migrants living in a store and its basement in Queens. Two days later in the Bronx, they cleared another basement where African migrants were being housed. Both of the de facto migrant shelters were run by a local immigrant businessman named Ebou Sarr, originally from the Gambia, who was charging migrants $300 a month to sleep in the stores he owned. 

In interviews with the media after the raids by City agencies, Sarr was unapologetic about the shelters he was operating—it was either a warm bed or the cold streets for migrants, and Sarr felt that he could help out. Some migrants told reporters that they preferred the beds Sarr provided to the City's stitched-together shelter system. 

Many of the men in Sarr's care had been kicked out of shelters under City Hall's 30-day rule, which makes migrants reapply for shelter after they've lived in one for 30 days. That reapplication process, which is run out of a former school in the East Village, can take days, leaving migrants out in the cold, with few options for where to sleep before they get a new shelter placement. Recently, City Hall has touted the rule as helping the City save money. 

"Not one child, not one family, not one individual has to sleep on the streets of the city of New York," Mayor Adams told reporters. "What we have done is working." He referred to his policies limiting stays at shelters as  a "successful humanitarian response."

But Sarr saw a different reality—men were simply sleeping on the street, and growing increasingly desperate. At the same time, they just needed some stability in their lives to be able to get work and eventually afford better housing. 

Eager to hear how he ended up sheltering migrants, Hell Gate spoke to Sarr in the furniture store he manages in the Bronx, down the block from the juice store he owns where, until recently, migrants were sleeping in the basement. While fire officials were aghast at the inherent danger of having so many people crammed into a space that wasn't zoned for housing, Sarr said he felt he had no other option. "Some men had been sleeping outside for two weeks when I met them, sleeping in the cold," he told Hell Gate.

Sitting on a sofa set, Sarr discussed his own migration to the U.S. and how the experience is different from what people face today; what he thinks the City should be doing to help migrants; and why he's ready to open up yet another shelter, even if the City shuts it down. 

How did you come to this country? What was your own immigration journey like? 

My journey was a bit different from these migrants. They did a really rough journey, going through different countries. For me, it wasn't that rough, thank God. When I came here, I had family members here, my sister, my cousins, so I didn't go to a shelter, I got to go to a home. 

In the Gambia, we speak English, so I was able to get a driver's license, get Social Security, everything was easy for me. I soon started working, it wasn't hard to get legal work. I soon had three jobs, working for McDonald's, working for a not very rich country club, and I worked for IBM too. I even worked at the mall for Lord & Taylor as a salesperson. 

When I came to America, my plan was always to get some money, learn about business, and go back home. But my mother, who was in the United States at this point, fell sick, just days before I was about to go back. I had to stay with her. So I stayed here, got married, had kids, and everything changed. 

Soon, I found a mentor, he was in the linen business, right here on Fordham Road. He decided to start a furniture store, this one right here, and I became his delivery guy. No GPS then, remember, we're using paper maps. Then I decided eventually to start my own furniture store, and there was no looking back. 

When did you first notice that other migrants were not having the same experience you did? That they were struggling?

My cousin came [after claiming asylum at the border]. I didn't even know he was coming until my sister called me. She told me to take him in, but I didn't have a place for him. But I figured he could just stay at the store. Then my childhood friend called me and said his cousin is on the way. This is when I started meeting all these guys coming in. 

I would see them at Home Depot, too, all these guys just looking for work. I said, "Wow, I need to do something to help these guys." My first idea was to give them jobs, because that's all they want. I had just opened the wholesale furniture store in Queens, and I started telling them—you sell my furniture, and we can split the profits. I just wanted to give them something to do. 

I think a lot of people have this misconception when they come over that you get a lot of money almost immediately. They want that fast money. It's not like that, things are going to happen slowly, and a lot of them were really disappointed. But because I had gone through this, they believed me. And once a few of them started working for me, I offered them a place to stay in the basement, and I offered food. 

And it turned out, they really just needed a place to stay. They told me about the 30-day limit. Some would come to me, crying, after getting kicked out of the shelter. A lot of them are just little kids! It broke my heart. I thought—maybe this is what I should do? I can buy a place, we can put our money together with all these people or rent and buy a place for people to live in. 

So many people started coming to me. 

Were you surprised how many people needed shelter? 

It was word of mouth. People would start calling me, even before their time in the shelter was up. They didn't want to wait until the last minute and have nowhere to go and sleep outside. Some men had been sleeping outside for two weeks when I met them, sleeping in the cold. They had no family here. They were mostly West Africans, from Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal. They felt comfortable with me. We're all friends here, working to educate one another about this country. I'm proud of them, too—each morning, they'd get up early to go look for work, they started putting money together, getting bikes, doing Uber deliveries, these guys, man. I'm proud of them. 

How many people did you end up sheltering in your stores? 

By the end, it was around 70 people. 

I started in early December, and we soon filled up the basement. I began moving stuff on the first floor of the store, where I had the furniture, and putting up curtains, I had people sleep back there. My best friend's cousin had become my right hand man by then, and asked me, "You're going to give away all your store?" And I said, "Yes, of course. We have to."

So we brought them to the basement in the Bronx as well. That's where I used to live sometimes too! Then the Bronx got packed. I went around the city, and I saw a lot of buildings, they were empty. The City says we're full? But you have all these places, commercial buildings, that you can use. It would even save you money, as compared to the shelters. 

The government let these people in. If you don't want them here? Don't let them in, close the door. But if they're here already, you have to put them somewhere! Don't play with their lives. So I decided to do what we have to do to keep these guys safe, and if the City comes and gives us a fine? OK. I don't have time to play their games. I don't have time to breathe, eat, when these people need help. As a Muslim, I always practice what I believe in. You have to show kindness to your neighbors.

When did the City catch on to what you were doing? 

I had some workers come by to put in a back entrance to the basement in Queens, so you could have two exits, one in the front and one in the back, in case of fire. When the guys did that, they ended up blocking one of the windows of my neighbor. And she was the one who ended up calling the City. She called a lot, but she only got them to really respond when she mentioned bikes and batteries. The Fire Department came looking for charging batteries, because there were a lot of bikes outside the store. But I didn't let people charge or bring batteries inside. The Fire Department left—but I knew that they would come back.

And of course they came back the next week, kicked everyone out. And most of the guys that were living there, they're still not in shelters.

Do you think there's a lot of situations like yours, where people are sheltering migrants in places like basements? In some cases, like yours, charging money? 

I think so. There are a lot of migrants out there. 

As for the money part, here's why: I like the number three, so I wanted to charge $300. And with all of these guys' money together, we can rent a bigger house for all of them. I didn't want to charge a lot of money, because we're doing something different, we're standing out. I'm not going to wait for the government to fund me, we could fund ourselves. Everyone pays a little, and we can have somewhere to live, and get three meals a day. Who has a better deal in New York City than that? 

The government has said this is an illegal operation—you don't follow building codes, you don't have a license. 

Putting them out there in the cold, in the snow, this weather can kill people faster than any alternative I'm putting out there. How long can people survive on the street? It's crazy cold out there!

If people offer you a basement, you're going to take it. You're desperate. There's no time for this—they either die outside or they come inside and survive. 

Do you still want to shelter people? 

Absolutely, I'm looking for a place right now. There's people out there who still need places, affordable places. It's a very expensive city. 

And what if the government tells you to stop again?

We want to do things the right way. The government has laws, sure, but it's people who make rules. They can be changed. And it's up to us to show them a better way. When you look at how the shelter system works, it's not about people, it's always about the money. The shelter operators want to make money. 

Are you sheltering anyone right now? 

Not right now. We're renting a place for the guys to move into very soon. A house, it'll be legal. 

The abandoned Old Fordham Library at 2556 Bainbridge Avenue. (Hell Gate)

You had another run-in with the police last week, right? 

Just down the block, there's an abandoned library. So I went there, I rented some generators, put in some beds, and I said, let's use this. Some guys started sleeping there, but some people from the neighborhood complained about it. So the police came the following day, kicked us out, and told the migrants to go to shelters. But they just kicked them out of the shelters! 

In an interview, Mayor Adams said shelters like yours were being run to "exploit desperate people," and that the City was doing a good job sheltering people. If you could respond to Mayor Adams about his treatment of migrants, what would you say to him?

It's more dangerous for these people to be on the streets. There are people out there who hate seeing migrants in this country. It's dangerous, sleeping at night, with no shelter. I just don't understand the rules they've made up, the 30-day limit, so I'd love to sit with him and talk to him, so he can see our side of the story. 

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