So much has taken place since Briarcliff Manor residents Julie Peskoe and Abbe Marcus, co-chairs of Congregation Sons of Israel Refugee Resettlement Committee, first met in the fall of 2021 to discuss how they could help resettle one of the many thousands of Afghan families who had fled for their lives after the fall of Kabul.
With the support of the Briarcliff Manor synagogue’s Rabbi Steven Kane, Peskoe and Marcus immediately began reaching out to congregants for support. “CSI is a synagogue of about 300 families and is always looking for ways to do community service. We wanted to bring this idea to the entire synagogue because we were told by others that it really takes a village to help resettle a refugee family,” says Peskoe.
Some 40 members of the CSI community signed up for the Refugee Resettlement Committee and quickly paved the way to help an Afghan family settle in Ossining. Committee members were trained by Church World Service, which taught synagogue volunteers about the process of welcoming and integrating a refugee family.
At the same time, the Resettlement Committee began raising money to help support their project. According to Peskoe, “Fundraising has actually been the easiest part of all of this. We’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars from congregants as well as from outside donors and grants from such organizations as the Westchester Jewish Coalition for Immigrants and Open Arms for Refugees [formerly Ossining for Refugees].”
The synagogue was matched by Church World Service with the K Family (last name not used because of protection and privacy reasons), who arrived in Ossining in February 2022. “Volunteer efforts included finding housing, gathering furniture and clothing donations, providing English tutoring, identifying employment opportunities, providing transportation, and helping the family navigate the health care system,” says Peskoe.
The father of the K Family is now working in food services at the Edith Macy Center in Briarcliff, with CSI congregants and community members driving him to and from work until the synagogue can help the family purchase a car. The mother was pregnant at the time of their arrival and gave birth to a healthy boy shortly after settling in Ossining (with help from the Open Door Family Medical Center location in Ossining), The couple also has a 3-year-old daughter, who received necessary oral surgery at Westchester Medical Center that was unavailable to her in Kabul.
Peskoe and Marcus decided to continue the work of the CSI Refugee Resettlement Committee (with many of its original members) and began looking for another opportunity to help out in the middle of last year. They soon found a call to action as the devastating war in Ukraine left many refugees fleeing the country and looking for asylum in the United States.
Working with HIAS (originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the CSI Refugee Resettlement Committee was matched with a family of four from Mariupol, a city which was devastated by the Russians during the war. The L Family (including a husband, wife, 14-year old, and 15-month old) arrived in the United States in December 2022 and were greeted at the airport by a CSI delegation.
“One of the first things we did for the family was to find them an apartment and furnish it down to the last toothbrush,” says Peskoe. “Forty different families from the synagogue made donations to furnish the home – from pots and pans, to linens, mattresses, bed frames, couches, and rugs. We also stocked the refrigerator with the basics of what the family would need.”
Peskoe also worked with committee members to get winter coat donations and arranged for the family to visit the synagogue’s thrift store in Chappaqua called the Opportunity Shop. “We took them on a ‘shopping spree’ on their second week here to give them a chance to pick out anything that they might need,” says Peskoe.
The husband of the L Family is trained as an auto mechanic, and it turned out that a synagogue member had contacts at several auto repair shops. According to Peskoe, “Within 13 days the husband got a job working at an autobody shop that is within walking distance of the family’s apartment.”
The committee was able to arrange for the mother of the L Family to take ESL classes at Westchester Community College. The mom and toddler have also been enrolled in the ”Little Explorers” class at CSI, and have been introduced to programs at the Ossining Public Library as well as to services at the Ukrainian Church in Yonkers. The teenager is receiving ESL classes at the Anne M. Dorner Middle School in Ossining, while the father plans on taking online English classes at night through the local nonprofit Neighbors Link.
“One of the interesting things about the launch of both refugee resettlement committees was that most members had grandparents or great grandparents that were immigrants and so they could connect to that storyline,” says Peskoe. “We have congregants themselves who remember their own families being helped by HIAS when they came here from Russia over 40 years ago. They’ve always been grateful for that help and now they have a chance to pay it back.”