Welcoming Refugees with Open Arms

Resettling refugees anywhere presents challenges, and Open Arms for Refugees is rising to the occasion here in Westchester with its mission of providing comprehensive assistance to a new family every six months. To date, the Ossining-based organization, co-founded by Ted Brueger of Briarcliff Manor, with more than 90 local volunteers, has resettled 11 households since March 2022, when it found housing for its first two families. 

Speaking with Buerger and volunteer Marianna Stout of Peekskill, it becomes clear that the initiative is a thriving collaborative effort enabled by volunteers throughout the county. Their resettlement work supports refugees who need to acclimate and integrate quickly to achieve self-sufficiency. The volunteers are divided into 13 specialized areas that cover everything from life essentials (like food and shelter) to more nuanced needs like healthcare, employment, and building a sense of belonging in their new community. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of Open for Arms that it has helped all refugees in its program attain financial self-sufficiency through gainful employment.  

The organization has built a strong stable of experts who understand the needs of each case. They recognize that no matter where the refugees are coming from — Afghanistan, Ukraine, Colombia — the common thread is that they have experienced trauma, left behind family and friends, and demonstrate strength of character in starting over here in Westchester. 

The 90-plus volunteers are able to cast a wide net when leveraging connections for teaching English, sourcing proper healthcare — medical, dental, mental — and finding affordable housing in a county not known for an abundance of low-cost real estate. 

Freshta shakes hands in January 2023 with Senator Charles Schumer, who helped get her out of Afghanistan at her cousin’s urging. “We have to do more to help the people of Afghanistan,” said Schumer.

“We have resettled families in Cold Spring, Mahopac, and Ossining,” Buerger told River Journal, “but not yet in Cortlandt or Peekskill. Housing is always a challenge, so you want to have a team in place so when the right housing comes up for the right family, you can move quickly. That is our hope in 2024 for Peekskill and Cortlandt. And of course we resettle people one family at a time, so we don’t overwhelm our volunteers, much less the community.” 

Open Arms’ first resettlement was for Freshta from Afghanistan in January 2022. “I came here with zero English,” she explained. “I chatted with Ted on a Zoom call, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I met [the Open Arms team] and found them to be wonderful people and a wonderful group. Very kind, careful with everything – with our feelings, life, work. 

“I started my new life in Ossining,” said. “It’s wonderful, it’s a safe place with nice people. Open Arms [helped me apply] to Westchester Community College for an English class and we found a safe apartment and a very good job with just a little bit of English.”  

In two years, Freshta has moved from a job at the Ossining Town Court to the Westchester County Courthouse in White Plains, where she currently works. 

Now acclimated to life in Westchester, Freshta continues to develop her language skills and hopes to pursue law studies. She is also an Open Arms volunteer. “I am working with some refugees who are coming now,” she said. “I can drive them, talk with them in their language. Some refugees from Afghanistan can’t speak English, so I can help them with anything I can do, and I want to help.” 

Open for Arms creates community resources (like an Afghan Moms club) to help refugees make valuable connections. The group is looking to average up to six resettlements per year. Once individuals are resettled, they can still lean on Open Arms for occasional support. Seasoned Open Arms participants can provide help to incoming members.  

As it grows, Open Arms for Refugees needs more experts. Buerger’s goal in 2024 is to add specialized teams throughout the county to support settled refugees. As new volunteers are brought on board, they can grow their capabilities to assist our new neighbors in pursuit of the American dream. 

All courtesy of Ted Buerger.

Steve Pavlopoulos is a freelance writer and producer living in Cortlandt Manor. 

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