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One of the mayor’s newest appointees got her start right here at John Jay, but her story extends far beyond matriculating at the Hell’s Kitchen college — Ravesa Bajo brings both her policy expertise and her family’s past as political refugees to her work as the newest Executive Director of Policy Initiatives and Special Projects for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA).
“I come from generations of men and women who sacrificed quite a lot in the name of what they deemed to be true and democratic,” said Bajo, whose family suffered as political prisoners under the communist regime of 1970s and 1980s Albania. “My father’s experience of being imprisoned for 10 years has contributed the most to who I am today. My mother and her three sisters also grew up in forced labor camps and my dad met my mother’s father as a political prisoner. My grandpa from my mom’s side was imprisoned for 20 years because he also had pro-Democracy views.”
Bajo was seven when she and her family escaped turmoil in her native Albania, only to find that the European asylum process presented its own challenges. “We tried to claim asylum status in Germany,” said Bajo. “Unfortunately we did not see a clear pathway to citizenship there, and there were similar circumstances in Italy and Belgium. In 1998-1999, we realized that France was the European country most open to having refugees, and so we decided to go through the four-year long process to become French nationals.”
Bajo and her family were thrown into a lengthy, serpentine system of temporary shelters and endless waiting. “You are sent to a nonprofit, who then sends you to what’s called a ‘refugee hotel’ in Paris — hotels specifically paid by the state to host refugees,” said Bajo. “And so you can imagine my family — two parents with two very young children — with just a backpack and duffle bag in our hands and trying to get by, waking up every day at 5am in this terrible, dirty hotel room where the ceilings are leaking, and going to this nonprofit where you register, hoping that your name gets called by midnight. Once you are in the system you are then placed in a sort of modern refugee camp — you have a roof over your head, and you repeat that over and over again for about a year, hoping to go through the process of becoming a citizen and starting a new life.”
Bajo’s family eventually became French nationals, and from there made the decision to emigrate to the US in search of expanded opportunities. “My parents decided that moving to the United States was the best decision for us and for our future. We got here through the diversity lottery visa, which Trump tried to do away with. By the time we arrived to the US we were green card holders, and so fortunately I did not experience the challenges of being undocumented that many immigrants experience in the US, but I very much had a culture shock. We came here not owning much, and there were extreme financial challenges for my family,” she said.
Arriving in the US at 18, she was thrown into the arduous college admissions process. “Six months after arriving, I took the SAT without speaking a word of English, and I found myself applying for colleges when I had no idea what the system looked like. My parents and my family did not speak English. So I had no support, and was trying to figure it out by myself.”
Luckily, a guidance counselor at Brooklyn’s New Utrecht High School spoke French, and was able to steer Bajo through the twisted maze of American higher education. “She helped me navigate the system while I was taking ESL classes, and she listened to my dreams of attending college,” said Bajo. “I did not know, for instance, the difference between public and private universities. I did not know that you needed to apply separately to each school. I think I was in a bit of a haze at that point — the deadlines for applications for that year were coming in very, very quickly and I was not prepared. It was an extremely challenging and scary time for me. It was six months between my arrival and the social decisions that would impact me for the rest of my life. But I was told by this career counselor that by applying to CUNY with one application, you could essentially apply to many different universities.”
“I remember taking my mom to see schools, and we only visited Hunter and John Jay. I remember falling in love with the university while standing in the lobby of John Jay,” said Bajo. She chose to study political science at the well-respected Hell’s Kitchen college and quickly found that the welcoming, inclusive environment of the CUNY school allowed her to flourish as a student and new arrival to the States.
“I just remember feeling like I belonged there — that a lot of the students who were in my class could relate to me, had similar backgrounds, and we could connect deeply over some very important challenges in our journeys thus far,” said Bajo. “I had many classmates with whom I could talk about memories or moments that I always thought that no one else could understand — they had experienced the very same feelings of loneliness, marginalization, homelessness.” Beyond the broader shared memories of political asylum and emigrating to the US, she and her fellow students could bond over the ways in which their day-to-day lives were constantly influenced by being immigrants. Said Bajo: “We would connect over shared experience — like the idea, for instance, that even to this day I accompany my parents to medical appointments, because they don’t speak English and I am their translator and first point of contact with the outside world.”
Bajo also credits the support of her John Jay professors with instilling in her a sense of confidence for her future ambitions. “I had professors who enriched my philosophy of life, who believed in me and who told me, ‘You will learn English and you will speak it well, and you will do wonderful things. You just have to give it time and you just need to work hard.’ Being at John Jay gave me the ability to finally contemplate the future, to rebuild the dreams that I had felt I had lost in moving to the US. John Jay was able to help me rebuild the puzzle of what I wanted my future to look like.”
During her junior year at John Jay, Bajo was named the National Steamboat Foundation Scholar, and was the sole John Jay student selected among 14 other university scholars to live and work together in public policy programs. Bajo spent this time interning at The Innocence Project, where she formed a passion for advocacy and justice reform while working to liberate wrongfully convicted individuals. “To this day I consider that summer, my junior year of college, to have been the most determining factor in my desire to continue public service, and that was an opportunity offered to me by John Jay,” she said.
Bajo credits her degree and life experience as the cornerstones of her understanding of shared humanity.
“Becoming a political refugee at the age of seven in Europe was the crux of my developing a social consciousness,” said Bajo. “I was immersed in this wonderful cultural experience, discovering new cultures and new ways to relate to others — it was incredible. And I think having those experiences while experiencing deep poverty and homelessness alongside other families that didn’t necessarily look like us, but who we shared a very common experience with, formed this idea of common humanity.”
While she would eventually focus her work on a wider swath of public policy issues, she acknowledges the influence of her past on a continued interest in reform. “I identify with the current modern desire here in the US to reform a sometimes deeply unjust system. I recognized it when I was at the Innocence Project. And since then I’ve recognized in my friends’ voices who are activists in the area — the same passion against injustice that I heard my father speak about his own experience as a political prisoner.”
Another passion of Bajo’s is ensuring that there are more trailblazing women in public office, leading her to help found the student-run bipartisan initiative Leading Women of Tomorrow. “It’s something I’m deeply passionate about — it’s a goal that I hope to see achieved during my lifetime,” she said. “I decided to work with the Resolution Project to provide support to a young fellow who was imagining creating a nonprofit or a social venture. I was matched with Medha, who had essentially launched Leading Women of Tomorrow. She was incredible, and so passionate, and I thought — here is an opportunity for me to advise and guide a young woman of such talent to be able to create something bigger and better. Leading Women of Tomorrow now has over 40 chapters and has trained over 2,000 women.”
Bajo took the same proactive, action-oriented approach to her post-grad work in the City of New York as a senior policy advisor for the deputy mayor for operations. “I had a portfolio of agencies and I would oversee their daily operations, including budget and legislative affairs to make things a bit fairer than they were. It was a very operations-heavy job. And it allowed me to take a deep look into what it means to want to reform the procurement system in the city, what it means to be able to lead the city workforce, and what it means to be able to impart organizational change management. Ultimately, I found that I missed the call to doing work that gave me a clear purpose, based on my personal background and experience. I wanted to shift into a role that allowed me to work specifically with the immigrant refugee population in the city.”
After three years in her role at City Hall, Bajo was appointed Executive Director of Policy Initiatives and Special Projects for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs by newly elected Mayor Adams. It was a powerful full-circle moment for Bajo, who reflected on just how far she had literally and figuratively traveled to get here.
“When I told my parents that I was being appointed to this position, my mom cried and my dad couldn’t stop smiling because they realized how important it was — not only for me, but for the entire family. 20 to 25 years later, here we are — going from homeless, political refugees, to me in a position where I’m able to articulate clear policy and support that will impact the lives of three million refugees and immigrants in the city,” said Bajo.
Bajo now works closely with the Adams administration and follows the lead of Manuel Castro, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs Commissioner, in closing service gaps for immigrant and refugee populations across the city.
“Additionally, we are at the forefront of the City’s rapid response in cases of local, state and federal emergencies as well as geopolitical events, such as the Russian-Ukrainian war. The long-term hope is that we are able to make New York City a safer sanctuary city. We want to make sure that whenever we can, all immigrants and refugees get the support they need and deserve. Armed with my experience as a refugee and emigrant, I am deeply invested in ensuring that I help build a city where the many challenges I experienced myself no longer exist for others,” said Bajo. “I am very fortunate to be part of a team here at MOIA.”
In between long hours of public policy work, Bajo finds time to recharge and unwind in some of New York’s (and Midtown’s) most-beloved haunts. “At the risk of sounding incredibly predictable, some of my most prized moments of self-care, or simply, pure enjoyment are almost always connected to Central Park. I yearn for those first moments of spring, where the sun sets late, and it’s warm enough to wear a cardigan only, book in hand, laying down in a carelessly thrown blanket, making new friends with the people sitting nearby. I think it’s in these moments I see the NYC I love – jovial carelessness in all its forms,” she said.
And as for her favorite place in Hell’s Kitchen? “The one place that really has my heart is Queen of Sheba,” said Bajo. “It’s an incredible, traditionally Ethiopian restaurant. Some of my most wonderful dinners have been with friends talking about the latest gossip or the most incredible philosophical and political discourse I’ve had, has been around food at Queen of Sheba. It’s a restaurant that is particularly meaningful to me, and has an anchoring feeling every time that I go.”