Senegalese association in Harlem offers support, social services to immigrants

The office of the Senegalese Association of America is located on St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem, sandwiched between a barbershop and an apartment building. Around 3 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, a handful of West African immigrants walked through its door. They sat on empty chairs, greeted each other with “Asalamu alaikum,” — peace be upon you — and conversed in a mixture of Wolof and French.

One of them was 17-year-old Makhtar Diaw, an 11th grader who came to New York from Senegal just two years ago. Diaw memorized the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, when he was 10-years-old. He comes here three days a week to tutor young children on how to read the Qur’an.

The non-profit association was founded in 1989 as a meeting space for families and friends when the first wave of Senegalese immigrants arrived in New York. It provides assistance with legal issues, after-school tutoring programs, housing and immigration issues, and family counseling, according to Papa Ibrahima Sow, the president of the association.

The center also helps in sending the bodies of the dead back to Senegal for burial. Since last week, the picture of Abou Sylla, a 36-year-old Senegalese man killed in a drug-related incident in Washington Heights on Oct. 3, hangs on an envelope posted at the tiny office of Kaaw Saw, the association’s general manager. The association solicited funds from the community so it can send Sylla’s body back to his parents in Senegal.

The organization is largest Senegalese association in the diaspora with more than 5,000 members. Its main focus is to help immigrants navigate the complexities of the American system: When people have legal problems, they come to the center that then connect them to lawyers. When parents have difficulty finding schools for their kids, they come to the association for guidance. A couple’s marriage is on the brink of break up? The Senegalese association will provide counseling and mediation.

The association mainly relies on its members for funding. In 2012, members, who each pay $10 a month, have contributed $45,000. The rest of the organization’s funding came from contributions and fundraising events, totaling $52,000, according to its filings with the Internal Revenue Service. It pays $5,000 a month in rent.

Ousmane Drame, one of the founders of the association, said the Senegalese community, one of the first African community to settle in Harlem, helps other West African groups form their own organizations.

Sow said the community is facing housing challenges. Landlords are “pushing out people from homes by increasing rent prices,” he said.

As a result, many families are relocating to the Bronx and Queens. Others are even moving to other states, such as New Jersey, Connecticut and Ohio.

Rents for retail space along 116th St. is also going up, forcing several African-owned restaurants and mosques to relocate to other parts of Harlem, Sow said.

“Large part of the community is moving out and we are struggling to come up with solutions or strategy to address this issue,” Sow said. “The sense of community is disappearing.”