Peekskill Herald

Peekskill Herald

Peekskill Herald

‘Open Arms for Refugees’ hosting Oct. 11 fundraiser in Peekskill

A friendly welcome at JFK airport is where it all starts. Open Arms for Refugees photo.

Imagine fleeing your homeland under threat of death from armed government soldiers, or vicious drug gangs.

Picture the fear and terror when forced to abandon all family and possessions in an instant and traveling through jungles or hidden in vehicles under cover of darkness and then, through some miracle, winding up safely in America –  but without a place to stay or a way to make a living.

For hundreds of thousands of refugees, this is their reality. Federal agencies, major American city governments, and hundreds of non-profits and church organizations across the country are stretched to their limits trying to provide for these new Americans seeking a better future.

Here in northern Westchester County, one group of volunteers, touched to act originally to provide a home and a community to one brave Afghan woman fleeing the Taliban, has taken it upon themselves to keep welcoming these courageous people, one family at a time.

The group, Open Arms for Refugees, is extending their reach into Peekskill with a fundraiser on Wednesday, Oct. 11 at the Bean Runner Café.

Open Arms has resettled 11 families, totaling 35 “future Americans,” to Cold Spring, Ossining and Mahopac. The group’s 90 volunteers offer their talents in specialized areas including education, health care, language skills, job training and more, providing a team for each family to help them move into an apartment, settle into schools and find health care and jobs.

“They’ve lost their sense of ‘what do I do today, what do I do for work, where do my children go,’” says Ted Buerger, one of the co-founders of Open Arms for Refugees.

Fall barbeque of refugees and volunteers of Open Arms for Refugees. Over 30 refugees sponsored by the group attended the event.  Open Arms for Refugees photo. 

“We bring them a sense of community. The good news is you’re safe and no longer feel that persecution, but you have no idea what awaits you, how you’re going to feed yourself. What really matters is that when the person first gets here they feel safe and welcome and they know there are people here who have their back.”

The fall of Kabul, escape to America

The group began to form in August of 2021 following the fall of the Afghan government and the efforts of one local woman to rescue a relative from the clutches of the Taliban. She escaped as the American troops were leaving during the chaotic retreat at the Baghram air base in Kabul.

Four and a half months later, that woman arrived in Westchester to a waiting apartment stocked with food and a home-cooked Afghan meal. She quickly found a job and a place to live through the efforts of Open Arms. “Our goal is to have them stand on their own two feet,” says Buerger.

Moving day volunteers, primarily from an Open Arms supporting organization, Congregation Sons of Israel. Open Arms for Refugees photo. 

The stories of the refugees are astounding and heroic. One family from Columbia rescued their children from the clutches of drug gangs. An Afghan father led his pregnant wife and two children on a 40-day trek to Turkey, only to be turned back at the border. He returned to Afghanistan and then found his way to America. Another refugee now works at a non-profit based in Peekskill that seeks to protect young girls from child marriage throughout the world.

Families come to Open Arms through established U.S. government resettlement agencies. They have been vetted and cleared for entry and often hold special immigrant visas, placing them on a fast track toward full citizenship.

The entire purpose of Open Arms is to clear the path toward independence for the new citizens they serve. One goal is to help each family toward financial self-support within six months.

Several of the Open Arms volunteers live in Peekskill. One resettled family uses the medical services at Sun River Health Care here. And Buerger hopes the group will be able to find affordable housing for future refugees here in the city. “I do think we’ll be placing a family in Peekskill. We’ve connected some of our families with other Afghans who live in Peekskill.”

The network of support groups

Open Arms has created a network of supporting organizations to address the specific needs of the new neighbors – whether for a table and chairs, an ESL tutor, a Chromebook, pediatric dentistry, a job opening, or a new apartment nearer the commuter bus to White Plains. Through their community bulletins and email lists, these organizations help deliver the right assistance at the right time.

The organizations include many area churches, religious groups and non-profits. Mariandale and Maryknoll in Ossining provide short-term housing until permanent apartments are located.

Many goods and services are donated. The biggest cash expense is paying the first three months of rent. “Because we have a good network of support groups, we put out the word through church bulletins that we need a new dining room and living room of furniture and people call up and donate,” Buerger says. Another volunteer donated dental services.

In August, Buerger received a call from a non-profit in upstate New York telling him that a woman had five days to get to the U.S. and find housing or she would lose her special immigrant visa. “We agreed to get airline tickets and take her,” Buerger says.

N, on right, member of Special Forces- trained Female Tactical Platoon, meeting with Chairman of Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley in Washington in September to support the Afghanistan Adjustment Act and get other women of her team out of of Afghanistan. Open Arms for Refugees photo. 

“I get to work with the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. Every one of our volunteers knows their field and is very committed to this.”

The Oct. 11 “Autumn Gathering” at the Bean Runner starts at 6 p.m. and will feature live music by local jazz organist Paul Connors. A donation of $75 per person is suggested. RSVP here.




About the Contributor
Jim Roberts
Jim Roberts has been in this business for more than 35 years (hard to believe) and still learning every day. A third-generation Peekskill resident, he started as a lowly researcher at the Westchester Business Journal in 1986 and learned how to be a reporter from many veterans in the field. He’s worked in private companies, Connecticut state government and wrote for the Co-op City Times for 10 years before retiring from full-time work in 2019. Roberts wants to contribute to building the Herald into a news website for residents who care about what’s happening in Peekskill.