Families of Gambians lost in Bronx fire denied US visas


Salim DrammehPresident of the Gambia Youth Organization (GYO), heard about the deadly Bronx, New York fire that killed 17 people on Jan. 9, from a friend.

“I received a notification that there was a fire in the Bronx,” Drammeh told OkayAfrica. “But, I didn’t know it was that close. Then a friend called and asked: ‘Hey, did you hear about the fire that happened near the GYO building?‘ She sent me an article and I thought, ‘Snap, that’s the building down the block from us.’

The 19-storey building, located at 333 East 181st Street, was affectionately known within the Gambian community as The Touray Towerits namesake coming from the end Abdoulie Touray, who emigrated to New York from the village of Sotuma Sere in the 1970s and lived in the building for four decades before his death in 2011. Touray was the first Gambian to occupy the building. And, at the time of the fire, 50 of his immediate and extended relatives were living there. Touray Tower became a magnet for Gambians hoping to establish roots and a sense of community in the United States, and as each generation outgrew the 19-story building.

Almost all of those who died in the January 9 fire were of Gambian origin. Nine adults and eight children died in what has been described as “the worst fire in modern New York City history”, and the nightmare the community was thrust into has shown no signs of dissipating.

Families of those who died who tried to plan a trip to the United States from The Gambia to rest their loved ones or care for survivors have been denied visas with no real explanation. Reports of a lack of adequate housing, communications and food resources followed in the wake of the deadly fire, and activists continue to liaise with city officials to rectify the situation. .

Mayor Eric Adams holds a press conference in the Bronx, NY following the January 9 fire

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

According to Drammeh, New York City officials were initially keen to help the fire-stricken Gambian community, “particularly the mayor’s office dealing with immigration affairs,” he says. He was the mayor of New York Eric Adams who granted the GYO access to the lobby of the building immediately afterwards to perform an admission and inform families of the resources available to them at the GYO. “In the meantime, we had Senator Chuck Schumer and Congressman Ritchie Torres who wrote to the Gambian Embassy to expedite some of the visa applications. And we are still in this process. They denied almost everyone. Senator Schumer’s office was unavailable for comment, while Congressman Torres released a statement saying, “Our office continues to provide direct assistance to families and victims affected by the Twin Parks NW fire in connecting them to federal, state, and local resources, and assisting with visa applications.”

The US consulate in The Gambia refused visas even to close and immediate relatives. One family, particularly the Jawara family, saw a family of six reduced to four as both parents died in the building fire. Their grandmother’s visa has been denied and as a result, the children are on their own as their new carer desperately tries to reach them. “They are grieving and have just experienced a very tragic loss,” Drammeh said.

In the nine weeks since the fire, Drammeh and the GYO have been the community’s most consistent and open point of contact. “As soon as we heard about the fire, we started fundraising. We raised over $1 million and awarded $5,000 to each household in the building and $10,000 to each deceased family member. The GYO has also stepped in to assist previous tenants with the hotel accommodation provided to them by the city. “Initially, the deadline for leaving the hotels was February 7. Then it continued to be extended until March 7, now April 7. It is constantly extended when the deadlines should not even arrive. We had to advocate for the food contract to include breakfast as originally they only offered residents lunch and dinner – not something we should have to fight for.

A lack of communication and orientation within hotels also puts unstable families at risk, Drammeh said. “Food is often left unmarked in the hotel lobby, and no one informs the families. You leave these families open to all kinds of malicious attacks. You don’t keep them safe. There is no liaison with the hotel – someone overseeing resident concerns. The city’s lackluster response to housing for the fire-affected community is not unique, however. There are reports of large families being held in single rooms infested with bedbugs, and the city is not properly distributing the more than four million dollars raised for victims of the fire. We contacted the spokesperson for Mayor Adams to no avail. Evan Theis for comment or any update. Meanwhile, Congressman Torres introduced a legislative package that will encourage the proper installation of heat sensors in residential buildings and “other measures to help prevent future fires,” his statement said.

Volunteers prepare packages to share with fire victims

Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

As far as Drammeh and the GYO are aware, the city’s long-term goals for rehousing residents also paint a grim picture. “Residents have been given CVR vouchers which will subsidize housing – this usually takes a long time but, again, the mayor’s office could speed things up. There is an urgent need. And as one of the community’s most important celebratory moments draws closer, the well-being of those affected is clouded with even more anxiety and anticipation. “Ramadan is coming next month,” Drammeh mentions, “and anyone who knows about Ramadan knows that when you have to break your fast, you need food. You have to cook – there’s no access to a kitchen in these hotels. We don’t want families there in Ramadan. It would be really awful. They have all their lives together in a very small hotel room.

Ultimately, Drammeh, the GYO, and various other human rights and legal aid organizations support residents and assess their needs in a way that the city does not. “We need social workers. We’ve sat down with some people, but all of them claim they don’t have the ability to help. It’s been non-stop since January 9th.

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