Grant helps local organization help refugee families

Pictured, from right, are Open Arms for Refugees co-founder Ted Buerger and his wife, Helen, and volunteer Cathy Dreilinger.

A local organization that formed late last year to effectively help new refugees transition to the area has exceeded all expectations. For the founders of Ossining for Refugees, they hoped that at the end of the first full year, the group would have been able to help three new refugee families and see them become independent.

But the organization, now called Open Arms for Refugees, achieved its original goal in about half that time. After six months, working in partnership with half a dozen other groups, its volunteers have set up three homes, a single woman and family from Afghanistan and another family from Colombia.

Another boost to the volunteers’ efforts was learning in late spring that their work had come to the attention of the trustee in charge of the David Swope Trust, named after a prominent local conservationist and philanthropist who died early of 2018. The trust awarded $250,000, accessed through a 2-for-1 matching grant to support its fundraising efforts.

While Open Arms for Refugees has done an impressive job of fundraising, having that extra level of support makes all the difference, said Peter Russell, one of the organization’s lead volunteers.

“It’s given us the momentum to welcome more refugees, asylum seekers, and it gives us a lot of confidence on the funding side that we can continue this year,” Russell said.

The group estimates that it costs around $30,000 to help a family transition to the United States in Westchester. In many cases this is made more difficult due to a very different culture than they are used to, said Cathy Dreilinger, who has been involved with Open Arms from the start. This includes finding them an apartment to acclimatize to if they need help learning English and identifying job and career opportunities.

Open Arms for Refugees’ goal is to have newcomers 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 new 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, more likely to reinstall them than someone struggling and looking for the money,” Dreilinger said. “So having money in the bank is a very important thing.”

The first refugee in the group, an Afghan woman identified as F, became independent in six months, she said. She got a good job in White Plains and moved into a permanent apartment in Mount Kisco, able to commute to work.

Other life skills that are sometimes taken for granted by Americans are just as important in getting families up to speed so they can become independent faster. Driving and interviewing skills, writing an effective resume and financial literacy are just some of the things that need to be taught, said Ossining supervisor Dana Levenberg, the group’s co-founder.

It’s also fitting that significant funding came from the Swope Trust, as he lived in Ossining and many of the band knew him, she said. This will allow Open Arms for Refugees to intervene quickly, if necessary.

“We can jump when we need to and there are enough people invested in the organization in a meaningful way that we can get 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 an unofficial base because the cost of accommodation there is relatively reasonable compared to much of Westchester. Additionally, most of the volunteers and support came from this community, as well as 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 settled in Cold Spring.

“We’ve had other communities tell us to come and talk to us, we could put together a team as well,” Russell said.

Other organizations Open Arms has partnered with include 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

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