Gala to support migrant housing that provides ‘safe places’ amid shelter evictions

Luis Salazar is a volunteer at Nuevos Vecinos Free Store. “I think these people are very good-hearted. They don’t know me and they don’t even know where we come from, they don’t even know anything about my nationality. But they want to help us. I don’t know them, but I’m so thankful that they exist,” said Salazar.

Zubaer Khan/Sun-Times

After meeting earlier this year, two women who share a similar devotion to migrants in Chicago have teamed up to do something special.

Luisette Kraal, who immigrated here 15 years ago from Curacao and now lives in Rogers Park, has been working nonstop since the very first bus arrived in the city in 2022, while Jessica Leving Siegel, a Wilmette resident, stepped up to help once she saw the crisis up close in the Chicago suburbs.

But now their efforts putting together the “Bienvenidos A Casa” gala this weekend to raise money for safe housing for migrants are even more important, they say, now that migrant shelter evictions have begun.

Kraal heard migrants walking the streets in Rogers Park when the first bus arrived in Chicago in August 2022, and soon mobilized with Park Community Church to help.

“We met them 12 hours later, and they told us how hungry they were. They told us their plight, and we started as a church to help them,” said Kraal. “They first told us that they have been traveling for months and they told us they didn’t have clothes or clean underwear. That was so painful to hear.”

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With the help of nonprofit organizations and her church, Kraal was able to move above and beyond clothing and food drives in October through her group, Nuevos Vecinos (New Neighbors) Community & Free Store in Uptown.

Since October, the store has been packed to the brim with free clothes and necessities for all genders and ages.

In January, Kraal met Siegel, who took action in Wilmette through food and clothing drives after seeing buses of migrants being dropped off in the area. Siegel began directing surplus supplies, volunteers and donors to Kraal in an effort to connect them with safe resources.

“Especially once the buses started coming here, I think for a lot of us it was like a wake-up call,” she said. “Like this isn’t someone else’s problem, it’s literally happening right in our own backyard.”

To Siegel, it’s “mind boggling” that there isn’t a “more organized response.”

“There’s no serving dinner at a soup kitchen experience that compares remotely to what it’s like being there when these people are getting off the bus,” she said. “Kids are crying and everyone is scrambling and they’re all talking about how hungry they are.”

Luisette Kraal, coordinator at Nuevos Vecinos Community & Free Store, speaks to customers recently at the store, inside the Institute of Cultural Affairs, 4750 N. Sheridan Rd.

Zubaer Khan/Sun-Times

After hearing about money needed for more housing, Siegel decided to plan a gala to raise money for the homes.

The Bienvenidos A Casa gala, which came together in just six weeks, will include a silent-auction, panelists, Venezuelan music and dinner at the Sketchbook Brewing Co. in Skokie. Tickets vary from $20 to $2,000. As of Tuesday, in-person tickets are sold out, but virtual tickets to see performances and speakers are still available.

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The race to find secure housing is top of mind for Kraal and Siegel.

In fact, the same building where Kraal’s store is also houses three floors of converted offices dedicated to providing a low-cost home for migrant families. The building was provided through the Institute of Cultural Affairs. Called “Manarcha,” the space has one floor with apartments that can house about 12 families in rooms with bright walls and decor in the communal kitchen and living spaces.

Another floor is almost completed and will be a communal living space with areas like a makeup corner, homework tables and a dining table.

The two live-in communities are homes for some of the dozens of migrant volunteers who come to work at the store. Those living in the apartments still have to pay rent, but at a steep discount, Kraal said. It’s a special place for them, especially those who don’t feel safe at their shelter.

Luis Salazar, his wife and their kids arrived in Chicago in December and have been staying at a migrant shelter in Irving Park.

But they try their best to not be in the shelter during the day, and instead work at New Neighbors.

“I feel less stressed here, I don”t have to see the infighting,” the 28-year-old said. “The bathrooms and the food are horrible. We don’t have to see all that because we can come here.”

Salazar has been working on the apartments and says that the nearly finished floor has only been under construction for a couple weeks.

There’s hope for another set of apartments, which will allow space to open up for Salazar and his family to move in to one of the Manarca floors. But after working with other nonprofits, Kraal’s group still needs about $52,000 to make it happen.

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Salazar and his fellow volunteers will be working the gala.

“I think these people are very good-hearted. They don’t know me and they don’t even know where we come from, they don’t even know anything about my nationality. But they want to help us. I don’t know them, but I’m so thankful that they exist,” said Salazar said.

“They better buy those tickets!” he laughed.

Mariah Rush is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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