Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Immigrants keep the hospitality industry running. Some work the line. Others generously share recipes that have been passed down for generations in their home countries. And many go on to open their own restaurants, making D.C. neighborhoods more vibrant.

But as restaurants began to shut down or switch to take-out only as the COVID-19 pandemic began to ravage the industry in March, immigrants, especially undocumented workers, suffered the brunt of the losses. They were laid off with no local or federal unemployment benefits to rely on as a safety net. Undocumented workers have instead counted on their families and community aid organizations to get by during the past five months.

At the beginning of the pandemic, several organizations set out to raise funds for vulnerable workers in D.C.’s hospitality industry. One organization working to support such workers is Ayuda, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income immigrants by offering legal, social, and language services, as well as training and outreach in the region.

If you’ve scrolled through Instagram, you may have noticed several D.C.-based restaurants and food organizations raising funds or crafting meals for Ayuda. Pastry chef Paola Velez‘s Dona Dona pop-up, Immigrant Foods, and Tables Without Borders are among those who supported Ayuda. 

“Our five NGO-impact partnerships are at the core of what we do at Immigrant Food,” says Immigrant Food co-owner and chef Enrique Limardo. “Our goal was to partner with local, brave NGOs that are in the trenches every day working with the immigrant community. We’re so proud of our partnership with Ayuda.”

Several other restaurants and food and drink companies led the way in raising funds for Ayuda including Emilie’s, Cafe Saint-Ex, Serenata, Colada Shop, Milk Cult, and Catoctin Creek Distillery. Daniella Senior, a partner at Colada Shop and Serenata, felt the call to help when this crisis began, as many of her employees were directly affected. 

“Our teams are always eager to help and strengthen immigrant communities,” Senior says. “Ayuda’s mission aligns with that of our business, where we support and encourage the success of individuals by providing different resources. We are glad that our small contribution can be a stepping stone to making a great difference in our community’s future.”

Since the pandemic began in early March, Ayuda has raised more than $70,000 via grassroots efforts originating in local restaurants. The money landed in Ayuda’s COVID-19 relief fund, which allows the nonprofit to support 140 clients and their families. 

Ayuda raised an additional $47,000 from several local foundations, including the Greater Washington Community Foundation, the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, ACT for Alexandria, the Arlington Community Foundation, the Prompt Response Fund, the Takoma Foundation, and the Communication Foundation of Northern Virginia. 

The community support for our COVID-19 relief fund has exceeded our expectations,” says Ayuda Executive Director Paula Fitzgerald. “We are extremely grateful to be able to distribute this funding to our immigrant communities during this time when the support is most needed. This funding has served as a lifeline for many of our clients who lost income either because they contracted COVID-19 or due to COVID-19 closures. [They] still had bills to pay and families to support.”

Maria, a Salvadoran immigrant, is one such restaurant worker who lost her job at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. “Ayuda has been extremely helpful given my situation,” she says in Spanish. “I have four children, and Ayuda helped me with money for rent, clothing, and food. I appreciate that my caseworker is always looking out for me and checking in. She treats me like a friend. This has been a true blessing for my family.”

Without access to unemployment and other benefits, undocumented workers are at a higher risk of being deeply affected by the continuing economic crisis. In June 2020, Events DC, the District’s official convention and sports authority, finalized its plans for the $5 million undocumented workers relief fund through the D.C. Cares Program and the $10 million Cultural Institutions Grant Program. 

DC Cares distributed one-time contributions to immigrant families in the District via community organizations. While 5,000 people received $1,000 on prepaid debit cards, that amount does not go far in a city with a high cost of living.

Despite all of the uncertainty within the restaurant industry about the future, small and independent restaurants continue to find ways to help the most vulnerable workers. Organizations such as Ayuda are essential in assisting vulnerable community members, many of whom work hard behind the scenes at restaurants.

 Ayuda’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund is still active and receiving donations.