Our City of Heroes

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By: Eugene Chow

In our teeming city of 8.5 million people, it’s easy to become numb to the suffering around us. At Robin Hood’s 27th annual Heroes Breakfast, attendees were reminded of the enormous unmet needs that exist within our city as well as the life changing work of Robin Hood and its nonprofit partners.

Of the more than 200 nonprofits that Robin Hood funds, three were selected to receive the Heroes Award: Coalition for Queens, CollegeBound Initiative, and the Immigrant Justice Corps. In recognition of outstanding work, each organization received an additional grant of fifty thousand dollars.

Representatives from each organization shared their inspiring stories of overcoming painful challenges to achieve success with the help of Robin Hood. Remarkably, each of the heroes are tied together by a common thread that is as old as our nation itself — they are all immigrants who came to this country to build a better life.

These are their stories:

Coalition For Queens — Moawia Eldeeb

Moawia is the embodiment of the American Dream. From a small farming village in Egypt to public housing in Queens, he became a successful tech entrepreneur with a company valued at $7 million.

In Egypt, he was destined to be a farmer like his father, grandfather, and seven generations before him. But when his younger brother Ali was born with a rare genetic disease, they had no choice but to leave.

They sold everything and made their new home in Queens, but surviving was hard. His father worked 15 hours a day in a pizzeria, but still didn’t make enough to pay rent, so at 12 years old Moawia began working 12-hour shifts in a pizza shop.

“I could barely see over the cash register and I had a hard time reaching into the oven to pull out the pizza. My arms are still scarred from the burns.”

His future was bleak. He rarely went to school and didn’t speak English, but when he was 14, his life changed after his house burned down. Moawia’s family moved into a shelter and for the first time they didn’t have to worry about rent.

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“Our apartment burning down was actually the best thing that happened to my family since we came to America.”

His father was able to cover the rest of the family’s expenses on his own, so Moawia no longer needed to work, but he couldn’t go back to school because he was so far behind.

“I was 14, but reading at a first-grade level,” he said.

Moawia started going to the public library where a librarian showed him a series of online educational videos and made him a curriculum. He studied video after video and within a year he had caught up. He returned to school and raced ahead, finishing high school in two and a half years and earning a bachelor’s in applied math from Queens College in just two and a half years.

“I was 20 and had my degree — while many of my friends were pushing hot dog carts in Times Square,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do next.”

It wasn’t until he discovered Coalition 4 Queens (C4Q), a Robin Hood-funded program that trains individuals from low-income communities to become programmers, that he would find his path. There, Moawia not only learned to code, but was inspired to become an entrepreneur.

“More than skills, Coalition for Queens gave me a dream and the confidence to go after it.”

CollegeBound Initiative — Juan De Jesus

Raised by a single mother, Juan’s early years were filled with instability. He moved constantly — first around New York then to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico before returning to the city. He spoke little English, but found solace in chess. He considered dropping out of school to play chess until he found a mentor from the CollegeBound Initiative. Now Juan is a special education teacher at the same high school he went to in the South Bronx.

“Chess was really my first language and how I connected with the world. I studied every move and practiced constantly — and I got good. So good that I had become one of the top players in the state. There was just one problem, I didn’t really speak English and I failed every class except math and gym.”

Juan vividly recalls the moment he met Jon Roure, an advisor from CollegeBound Initiative, which sends college advisors to under-performing public schools in New York City.

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“I was stunned. Jon was the first successful man of color I had ever met and he impressed me…He looked like success — but he also looked like me.”

They quickly built a strong bond and Jon encouraged Juan to go to college, something he had never considered before.

“Jon was the first to mention college to me, but more importantly, he was the first to believe that I could make it. He helped me realize that I was good enough — that I could accomplish so much more.”

Inspired, Juan poured all his energy into studying and learning English so that he could attend his dream school, Skidmore College. With the help of CBI, Juan was accepted and received a scholarship.

After graduating, Juan returned to New York and dedicated his life to helping kids reach their full potential as a special education teacher.

“Just like Jon was there to guide me and inspire me when there was no one else, I’m there for my students.”

Immigrant Justice Corps — Gloria Chacon

Born in Honduras, Gloria was raised by her mother, a barrier-breaking civil engineer who became the head of a government agency. Her family was forced to flee Honduras due to political violence. Her uncle was viciously murdered and her mother narrowly survived an assassination attempt. After struggling as an immigrant in the United States, Gloria is now an immigration attorney fighting to make the American Dream a reality for others who came to this country like her.

“In our darkest hour, the United States was a beacon of freedom. It offered safety and a new life for my family.”

While she came for safety, her family only found legal trouble and incompetent immigration attorneys.

“We lived in constant fear. We worried that my mother would be stopped by the police one day and be deported and we’d never see her again.”

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Making matters worse, at 17, Gloria found out she had cancer.

“I was overwhelmed. Not just by this terrifying disease, but about the treatment — we couldn’t afford it.”

She overcame her cancer and focused all her energy on school. In her freshman year, she finally received her green card.

“Three years after coming to the US, we could finally live without fear — and we were free to pursue our dreams.”

An excellent student, Gloria graduated from Rutgers at the top of her class with two majors and two minors and went straight to New York Law School. From there, she applied to the Immigrant Justice Corps, which provides free, high-quality legal representation for immigrants.

“IJC gave me the opportunity to be a voice for families just like mine. Without IJC, I wouldn’t have gotten the training I needed to become the kind of immigration attorney I had always wished my family had.”

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