Daud Nashid, 51, at his desk at Exodus Transitional Community in Harlem. By Amy Zahn
Daud Nashid is 51. He wears leather shoes, crisp button down shirts, and size 30-30 jeans — when he can find them.
“No one caters to us like that, men with smaller frames,” he said. “Even when I get a 30-30, sometimes I have to get it taken in.”
Nashid spends his weekends shopping. Downtown, he said, is where he’s able to find things that fit his 5’’6’ frame. He likes to patronize smaller establishments, ones that don’t feel as corporate.
“I’m kind of finicky with the shopping,” he said.
That’s because for 28 years, he wore nothing but solid green uniforms day in and day out, what he calls “prison greens.”
There are 51,000 people imprisoned in the state of New York, but Nashid is no longer one of them.
“The biblical parable is that, ‘Can anything good come out of Jerusalem?’ We can use that to say, ‘Can anything good come out of prison?’’’ he said.
New York City has slashed its jail and prison populations by over half in the last 30 years, while the rest of the country’s incarceration rates have only climbed. But the shrinking of the city’s prison population has given rise to a different kind of population — people trying to find their way back into society after spending time behind bars.
According to the Department of Justice, the average first-time prison sentence is just two years. Fifty-five percent of the prison inmates in the state of New York are on their first felony conviction, meaning they’ll be out soon.
Julio Medina is the founder and CEO of Exodus Transitional Community, an organization that connects formerly incarcerated people with the necessary job and life skills to re-enter society. According to Medina, aside from housing and employment, the biggest struggles a formerly incarcerated person may face are reconnecting with family and basic resocialization.
In the five years since he’s been out, Nashid has struggled with both.
“My mother’s glad that I came home,” he said. “But my mother was one of the first ones to say that I deserved to be punished.” Nashid began selling drugs in seventh grade. He wanted to make some money for his family — he, his mom and his brother.
“I made a lot of money selling crack cocaine and damaging my community, something I’m not proud of today,” said Nashid. “I didn’t manufacture the drugs, but I could have decided not to do it.”
But that life of lawlessness, he said, eventually led him to something much worse.
When Nashid was 18, he kept a safe at his mom’s house. Before it was stolen, the safe contained $27,000, some crack cocaine and a handgun. The week after the theft, Nashid confronted the robber at a park.
“I had a handgun, a small, little .25 caliber handgun. It just happened so quick. After five or six seconds, I took the handgun and shot him. I remember him turning and running, and I was still shooting as he ran,” Nashid said. “And that was that.”
The victim’s name was James Drummond, and he and Nashid had been friends their whole lives. They lived in the same building. They’d gone on trips together.
“I shot and killed my childhood friend over drugs,” he said. “He robbed me of some physical things, some tangible things, but I robbed him of an opportunity to see his mother get old, to have a career, to see his daughter grow up.”
Nashid was sentenced to 25 years to life, and was paroled after 28. His mother was there for him through it all, but Nashid hasn’t forgotten that people in his life, including her, had been close to James Drummond, too. People who came into his life after prison have also had a hard time accepting his past, including Carmen, his girlfriend of several years.
“She’s not good with it,” he said.
Carmen is the daughter of a retired police officer, and according to Nashid, grew up with a “certain perspective” of people who broke the law. Nashid is far from the only former prisoner who’s had trouble reconciling his past with the people in his life after getting out.
Medina said connecting with family and friends after serving time can be a monumental task, and can contribute to a host of other issues a former prisoner is likely already facing, like difficulty finding housing and employment.
“I think some of the discrimination is inherently ingrained in our system,” Medina said. “We need this sense that someone has to be evil,” he added, in order to have been incarcerated.
While Nashid was able to find a job unusually quickly — two weeks after being released — it didn’t come without difficulty. At his first post-prison job, his coworkers at the clinic he worked at circulated a petition about him. They didn’t want to work with a convicted murderer.
“They took it to the CEO,” he said. “And the CEO was like, ‘Get out of here, I hired him. I think he deserves a second chance.’”
Nashid has been working to earn that second chance ever since.
“A person’s lost their life, and I’m responsible for it,” he said. “In accepting full responsibility for it, I’ve decided to move my life in a different direction. I’ve decided to honor the memory of my victim by committing to resolving violence peacefully.”
Nashid has worked at Medina’s organization for the past two years, where he runs skills workshops in prisons throughout the state and recruits parolees to come to Exodus and use their services.
“Despite what a lot of people think, that nothing good can come out of prison, we’re proving them wrong. We’re doing it daily,” Nashid said.
Daniela Valdes Bennett and Ana Garcia, visiting students through the NYU Hurricane Maria Assistance Program, in Bobst Library at NYU. Photo by Claire Tighe
When Puerto Rican college students Ana Garcia and Daniela Valdes Bennett applied to transfer to NYU for their spring semester after surviving two hurricanes, they kept it a secret from each other. The friends broke the news through emojis — an airplane, followed by another airplane and an American flag.
“I texted her saying, ‘Hey, I have news,’” said Bennett. “Ana said, ‘I have news too.’ And we freaked out.”
Garcia and Bennett are two of the 57 students admitted to NYU for the Spring 2018 semester through the Hurricane Maria Assistance Program. Through the program, NYU covers full tuition, a meal plan, housing and health insurance for students whose educations were interrupted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria last fall.
“There were over 400 applications and several hundred more that were not completed,” said Josh Taylor, Associate Vice Chancellor of Global Programs at NYU. “We prioritized students with challenging living situations, no internet and who attended campuses with no electricity.”
Other major universities, including Tulane, Cornell and Brown, are offering similar programs this spring.
Bennett and Garcia decided to transfer after barely managing one semester on the recovering island. Throughout the fall semester, closed classrooms, destroyed equipment and loss of power made studying nearly impossible.
Garcia’s school was closed for weeks due to the storms.
“Water came through the roof and ruined all the computers, everything,” Garcia said. “When the school opened again, we were taking classes in different places. It was a mess. When classes resumed, the power wasn’t guaranteed.”
Today, 131 days after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans on the island continue to struggle with the lack of reliable power. According to status.pr, 69% of the island has electricity, leaving 450,000 people currently without power. Garcia’s family completely lost power for four months. For Bennett’s, it was three and a half months, but they still have intermittent outages.
“Just this morning my family lost power again,” said Bennett. “It’s coming and going. Talking to them on the phone makes me kind of sad to know that they are still there. My twin brother is still studying in Puerto Rico and he keeps calling me saying, “‘I’m so jealous of you.’ I know it’s hard for them.”
During the fall semester, both students did homework using flashlights and candles. To do research, they drained their cell phone batteries and used what little data they had. When it was time to recharge, they took their laptops and phones to local cafes and waited along with dozens of other people who shared surge protectors and outlets.
“There were so many lines,” said Garcia. “For everything.”
At the cafes, the young women submitted their applications to NYU, which felt like a much-needed relief from the stress in the aftermath of the storms.
“The situation is just so overwhelming,” said Garcia. “You can’t think of anything but getting your power back and being able to shower with hot water.”
For Garcia, the chance to attend NYU for the spring seemed like a second chance to buckle down after a semester lost to the hurricanes.
“I found out that I had gotten into the program while I was at the bakery charging my phone and my laptop,” said Garcia. “And then I started crying and the people at the bakery were like, ‘Are you okay?’ And I was like, ‘Yea, I’m just really excited. This is good news.”
On campus at NYU, the transfer students feel embraced by their peers, despite the differences in their experiences.
“As soon as I told my roommates I was from Puerto Rico, they asked me about the hurricane,” said Bennett. “They sat around the table and I told them all of my stories and they were like, ‘Oh my god, wow.’
But the visiting students feel like their peers aren’t talking about Puerto Rico as much as they should be.
“I do feel like a lot of people have forgotten about it,” said Bennett. “People think it’s over and there has been so much progress, so I don’t want to complain. But it’s not over yet.”
Vivien Orbach Smith with her parents Larry “Lothar” and Ruth Orbach, both natives of Berlin, Germany, at her NYU college graduation. Larry Orbach survived Auschwitz and a death march to Buchenwald.
At first, Vivien Orbach-Smith wasn’t sure she wanted to know the vexing details about what her father, Larry “Lothar” Orbach, had endured during the Holocaust, but in deciding to coauthor his memoir in 1996, she chose to tell the story of one man who survived.
“I became a writer/daughter on a mission: to give voice to the suffering, joys and complex humanity of not only Lothar, but the six million European Jews — 1.5 million of them children — who were killed under systematic, targeted, state-sponsored genocide,” Orbach-Smith said in the foreword of the book, “Young Lothar: An Underground Fugitive in Berlin.”
The NYU journalism adjunct professor and alumna, whose parents are both survivors of the Holocaust, has devoted her life’s work to furthering the stories that surround the tragedy. On the day after Holocaust Remembrance Day, she recalled her father’s life and the legacy of survivors.
“After the war, in the 1950s, the Holocaust was still very fresh,” Orbach-Smith, said. “We were surrounded by physical evidence, meaning the living survivors. Some of them with the numbers still on their arms and thick accents that were evidence of what had occurred.”
But even with visible confirmation of what had occurred surrounding them, Orbach-Smith shared that there was still hesitance to discuss the atrocities to their community.
“I was not born into an environment or an American culture where people, Jews or non-Jews, asked questions about the number on my father’s arm or was he in any way encouraged to talk about it,” Orbach-Smith said. “The word ‘Holocaust’ did not even exist. There was no word for what had happened.”
But in recent decades, things took a shift, which many, including Orbach-Smith, attest to the need to tell the stories while they can.
According to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the youngest survivors today are said to be 73 years old.
“I think the survivors have more of sense of urgency now that it was time to talk. Before their time ran out,” Orbach-Smith said. “And that they really are the only living witnesses and their testimony would matter.”
NYU students Daniella Panitch and Ari Spitzer may be part of the last generation who will get their education of the Holocaust firsthand.
“I can remember having so many different Holocaust survivors visit my class in elementary school and my grandparents sharing their personal stories of them being in concentration camps or escaping Nazi Germany,” Panitch said. “And you hear the firsthand accounts and it’s not this date or this thing that happened in history books but it’s real person’s story.”
Panitch is a member of the Bronfman Center, a Jewish student life organization at NYU. But even with direct exposure and involvement in Jewish culture and education, Panitch feels obligated to further the message of her ancestors.
“I remember my parents telling me, ‘you’re so fortunate to being hearing this firsthand and your children won’t have that. It’s your obligation to pass that on,’” Panitch said. “So for me it’s just trying to hold on to that personal aspect of it and not feel like it’s just another instance of the persecution of Jews and we need to not pass on just the number, six million Jews, but the stories behind them.”
One of those stories was voiced by Elie Wiesel, a survivor and fervent voice in the Jewish community, who died at the age of 87 in July 2016. For 22-year-old Spitzer, Wiesel embodied the message of survivors of the Holocaust. And now that he’s gone, Spitzer says its up to him and his generation to carry this message so that moment in history is never repeated.
“My kids will go to all the exhibits and museums and visit Poland like I did, as difficult as it was, it was important to know where we came from and our history,” Spitzer said. “(The Holocaust) was such a formative event in bringing me to where I am.”
For Orbach-Smith, another worry lies in the recent rise of anti-Semitic rhetoric and white supremacy, especially once there are no living survivors to represent the result of the bombast.
“My worst fear is that the world of my children and grandchildren will be like the world of my parents and grandparents and I feel guilty and distraught that my life has been this charmed period of sympathy for Jews in the wake of the holocaust,” Orbach-Smith said. “I sort of coasted through and now once again the rise of this ugliness. I never dreamed that this would be possible.”
But the now-grandmother believes that continued storytelling and empathy from future generations will help combat prejudice and repeated history.
“Time plays a role here in remembering tragedies more than anything else,” Orbach-Smith said.
The patrons of Dred Barbershop and Salon get haircuts yesterday afternoon. Photo by Keziah Tutu
Not every African immigrant is upset over Trump calling their homeland a “shithole.” At Dred Barbershop and Salon in the South Bronx, some believe he was right on target.
“Trump is 200 percent right. Some parts of Africa are a shithole,” said Ghanaian immigrant Mohammed Ali Akirugu, 34, a regular customer at the barbershop. “The way he said it was not right, but what he said was right.”
President Trump’s comments were allegedly made during a bipartisan meeting with senators in the oval office where, they discussed a deal to protect America’s borders and immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries who are on temporary protection status (TPS).
Akirugu, a Ghanaian immigrant and regular customer at the barbershop said the economy back home made it difficult for him and now his younger brother, who recently graduated with a political science degree from the Islamic University College, Ghana, to find work.
“We video chat every day and nothing has changed since I left,” he said. “If you don’t have political connections somewhere you can’t get a job, that’s a shithole.”
According to a 2012 study released by africaneconomicoutlook.org, Ghanaian youths make up an estimated 33 percent of the population. Youths between ages 15-24 have an unemployment rate of 25.6 percent, twice that of those between the age of 25-44 and three times that of those 45-64.
Solomon Oolong, 27, a Ghanaian immigrant who emigrated to the United States two months ago, shared the experience of his inability to find work after graduating in 2012 with a degree in Business Administration from Valley View University in the Greater Accra region of Ghana.
“I literally begged for work to do, but everywhere I went, there were no openings,” he said. “We have all the resources in Ghana, but our leaders won’t help us so we end up living in hell.”
Oolong supported himself by opening an internet cafe with money he earned from his National Service at a military hospital in Accra, Ghana’s capital city. National Service is temporary paid labor all graduates of accredited Ghanaian institutions are required to perform for a year to the nation.
“Some of my mates who I graduated with came to me for work,” he said. I couldn’t believe it. These guys were graduates.”
Oolong said he does not find President Trump’s comments as an insult or an attack on his identity as an African man.
“Trumps comments don’t affect me because he doesn’t know me personally,” he said. “He’s speaking to our leaders. It’s a wakeup call for them.”
Kofi Addison, a 35-year-old barber who has worked at the shop for 11 years, also expressed his support for President Trump’s comments.
“I love my county, I love Ghana but the politicians there only enrich themselves,” he said. “My job is to work hard, improve myself and hope my people back home change their mindsets.”
Germain Ouedraog, 25, a college student from Cote D’ivoire, was among the few who expressed their anger towards the president’s comments.
“What he said was not right,” he said. “He should think about the past, the United States would not be this great nation without Africans.”
Ouedraog came to the United states on a student visa, with the hopes of completing his college education and finding a better job to support his family back home.
“I’m paying my taxes to this country, not to Africa,” he said. “If I come from a shithole country, it is my tax money that aids development here.”
He said the president should show more respect to the immigrant community and the leaders of African nations should invest their resources in their people and nation.
“It is time to think of ourselves and stop depending on others,” he said. “If Africans would unite and start fighting for ourselves, maybe Trump would see how great we really are.”
Volunteers were split into groups of three to five individuals. They received training on how to approach individuals they encountered in their survey area before heading out for the night. Photo by Kristen Torres.
More than 4,000 volunteers took to the streets last night to tally up the city’s homeless population.
They were taking part in a yearly count dubbed the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE), which is made mandatory by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Volunteers gathered at over 20 sites across the city’s five boroughs last night to receive training before canvassing their assigned blocks. Around 100 of them crammed into the cafeteria of a public school in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood at 10 p.m.
“You have come out of your homes to help people who don’t have a home to go to tonight,” said Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Heminia Palacio. “You’ve come out to give all of us New Yorkers the hope that we can help our neighbors — and that we can continue to bring people in off the streets.”
Volunteers milled in and out of the cafeteria, eating donuts and filling out paperwork. Sitting at plastic tables in their groups for the night, team captains led discussions on how the night would go.
In groups of three to five people, HOPE volunteers are assigned a certain amount of blocks to canvass in one of the city’s five boroughs. They spend roughly four hours — from midnight to 4 a.m. — asking everyone they encounter if they have a place to sleep that night.
Jesse Shiffman-Ackerman volunteered for this year’s count. It was his seventh year participating.
“We live in New York City, and, I mean, I’ve been here my whole life and seen homeless people all around me,” Shiffman-Ackerman said. “They need real help. That’s why I keep coming back.”
Shiffman-Ackerman said he’s typically assigned to canvass Penn Station, which also includes monitoring the trains.
“There’s always plenty of people to talk to,” he said. “And with a cup a coffee and enough people around to question, it’s pretty easy to keep up the motivation over the course of four hours.”
As a result of last year’s count, 1,500 New Yorkers were taken off the streets and remain off the streets, according to Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks.
“In the past, the surveys focus was on bringing someone out of the cold for a night,” Banks said. “But we’ve shifted our goals and now we’re looking for long-term solutions for these people to keep them off the street permanently.”
There are currently 2,000 known unsheltered individuals on the city’s by-name list, which keeps track of homeless individuals as they transition off the streets, according to Banks.
“The survey enables us to know where people are and that helps us engage them and bring them off the streets,” Banks said. “It can take anywhere from one to five months to find someone permanent housing, and this survey helps us make sure we’re not missing anyone.”
Banks said the nationwide survey also gives insight into the forces driving homelessness in the city.
“In this city, rents went up almost 19 percent last year, while income went up less than 5 percent,” Banks said. “That’s obviously driving homelessness in our city. We have to pay attention to those indicators.”