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A local organization that formed late last year to help effectively transition new refugees into the local area has exceeded all expectations. For the founders of Ossining for Refugees, it had been their hope that by the close of the first full year, the group would have been able to assist three new refugee families and see them become independent.
But the organization, which now goes by the name Open Arms for Refugees, accomplished its initial goal in roughly half that time. After six months, working in partnership with about a half-dozen other groups, its volunteers have settled three households, a single woman and a family from Afghanistan and another family from Colombia.
A further boost to the volunteers’ efforts was learning late this spring that their work had caught the attention of the trustee in charge of the David Swope Trust, named after a prominent local environmentalist and philanthropist who died in early 2018. The trust bestowed $250,000, to be accessed through a 2-to-1 matching grant to buoy its strong fundraising efforts.
While Open Arms for Refugees has been doing an impressive job of fundraising, to have that extra level of support makes all the difference, said Peter Russell, one of the organization’s key volunteers.
“It gave us the momentum to take on additional refugees, asylees, and it gives us a lot of confidence on the funding side that we can keep going this year,” Russell said.
It is estimated by the group that it costs about $30,000 to help a family make the transition to the United States in Westchester. In many cases, that is made more difficult because of a very different culture than what they are accustomed to, said Cathy Dreilinger, who has been involved with Open Arms since the start. That includes finding them an apartment for them to get acclimated if they need help learning English and identifying job and career opportunities.
It is Open Arms for Refugees’ goal to have the new arrivals achieve self-sufficiency as quickly as possible, realistically within six to 12 months, and the extra money now allows them to respond more quickly as additional refugees arrive, Dreilinger said.
She described the grant as “a vote of confidence.”
“If you have the money ready to go, you’re in a better position, you’re more likely to have a chance to resettle them than somebody who is struggling and scrounging over the money,” Dreilinger said. “So having the money in the bank is a very important thing.”
The group’s first refugee, an Afghan woman identified as F, became independent within six months, she said. She got a good job in White Plains and moved into a permanent apartment in Mount Kisco, being able to commute to work.
Other life skills that are sometimes taken for granted by Americans are equally important to get the families up to speed so they can become independent sooner. Driving and interviewing skills, putting together an effective resume and financial literacy are just some of the things that need to be taught, said Ossining Supervisor Dana Levenberg, a co-founder of the group.
It is also fitting that important funding came from the Swope Trust, because he lived in Ossining and many in the group knew him, she said. It will enable Open Arms for Refugees to spring into action quickly, when necessary.
“We can jump when we need to and there are enough people who are invested in the organization in a meaningful way that we can pull together very quickly,” she said.
An important element for Open Arms for Refugees is the name change. Dreilinger said they initially wanted to have Ossining as its unofficial base because the cost of housing there is relatively reasonable compared to much of Westchester. Also, most of the volunteers and support was coming from that community, along with Croton, Briarcliff Manor and Pleasantville.
But in some ways the hyperlocal focus was limiting. Russell said the husband and father of one of the families found work in Putnam County and they have settled in Cold Spring.
“We’ve had some other communities that said come and talk to us, we might be able to put together a team as well,” Russell said.
Among the other organizations that Open Arms has partnered with is Hearts & Homes for Refugees, Neighbors for Refugees, Rivertowns for Refugees, ReSET Westchester, Congregation Sons of Israel and the Westchester Jewish Coalition for Immigration (WJCI).
For more information about Open Arms for Refugees, visit www.openarmsforrefugees.org.
Martin has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been editor-in-chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007. Read more from Martin’s editor-author bio here. Read Martin’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/martin-wilbur2007/