Community

Rivertowns for Refugees: A Neighbors-Helping-Neighbors Approach to Refugee Resettlement


October 18, 2020

By Annabelle Allen–

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” ~ The New Colossus, inscribed at the base of The State of Liberty. 

Americans have traditionally seen themselves as agents of Emma Lazarus’ iconic exhortation, welcoming all newcomers and delivering on the promise of the American Dream. Particularly since the Refugee Act was passed, with bipartisan support, in 1980, the U.S has, indeed, been a leader in refugee resettlement. Under the current administration, however, Lady Liberty is looking like quite the hypocrite. After four years of Muslim bans, building walls and caging children, the “lamp beside the golden door” has come to look more like an ICE agent’s flashlight.

Amidst a global refugee crisis in which 30 million people (over half of them children) have fled their homes), the current administration is admitting the lowest number of refugees in American history, forcing the closure of resettlement agencies nationwide.

And yet, with little or no fanfare, a host of community sponsorship organizations throughout the country have stepped to the forefront. They work in conjunction with the U.S. State Department, which is responsible for vetting the refugee families before they are allowed to come. In Westchester County since 2015, nearly a dozen public-private partnerships have linked up with two refugee resettlement agencies—HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and Catholic Charities—to resettle families. In 2018, the  non-profit Hearts and Homes for Refugees launched  the Westchester Refugee Initiative (WRI), a coalition of non-profit organizations, churches, synagogues and mosques, student and committed volunteers, that continues to grow and serve refugees and those seeking asylum in the region.

Rivertowns for Refugees is one of them. Comprised entirely of volunteers, the group has worked tirelessly since its formation five years ago to give a proper welcome to these newcomers and support others who have already resettled in the area. Not only does the group provide local support—food and clothing drives, transportation assistance, housing and job search assistance—but it also supports other organizations within the network.

One such program, started by Heart and Homes for Refugees and enthusiastically supported by Rivertowns for Refugees, is called “Helping Hands.” The program provides short term support (2-3 months) for refugees and asylum-seeking families throughout the area. Volunteers provide assistance with things like medical appointments, language classes, job training/searches, and guidance on education, employment or career mentorship. The network has helped over 500 refugees in the surrounding areas.

“You need to be in the hands of neighbors, and people who know your name, know your face, know what your family’s like, and know the size of your winter boots, if you need an extra pair,” said Irvington resident Steve Grieder, the founder of Rivertowns for Refugees.

It is almost impossible, he says, for any government agency to summon the same amount of empathy that communities and neighbors can put forth for newcomers. While the U.S. State Department website expounds a goal of encouraging “speed integration” of families so that they become self-sufficient as quickly as possible, the idea is an oxymoron; you can’t rush order a transition as drastic as beginning a new life in a foreign country.

The materials the department uses to assist this “speed integration” include a variety of booklets and online orientation seminars. Before they arrive in the States, every refugee family is offered a copy of “Welcome to the United States” as well as access to orientation classes. But after a loan for travel that the refugee family must pay back in 90 days and a one-time stipend of $1,000, the federal government’s role as a good host comes to an end.

“They give each person a thousand dollars and with that you’re supposed to rent an apartment, pay first, last and security, buy food, set yourself up, and get a job, whether or not you speak English and whether or not you’ve been traumatized,” says Kris Oser, a volunteer for Rivertowns for Refugees.

The community sponsorship model is intended to close this gap, and it is volunteers like Oser who make a proper welcome possible. “What the rivertowns have in abundance is good will ,” says Oser, “and people with a lot of good resources.”

When Steve Grieder put out a call, two weeks before Christmas last year that a family was arriving, the community pulled together and gathered everything they would need to start a home— beds, bedding, furniture, clothing, winter coats— the list goes on. In 2019, through the Helping Hands program, volunteers donated over $10,000 worth of goods to families, and with the help of over 2,000 volunteers, Westchester Refugee Initiative helped resettle 70 refugees within Westchester County.

What makes the community sponsorship model successful is the ability of its volunteers to provide the additional time and resources necessary for a family to build a sustainable life in America. This support offers softer landings and the prospect of greater success for these families. It is an approach that is growing in popularity across the United States. “The more focused and local your support is, the less unintended consequences [there are],” says Grieder. “It really allows support to be personalized and tailored. More than anything it helps new Americans really feel like they are a part of the community. That’s the beauty of the community sponsorship model.”

Those interested in volunteering are encouraged to write to rivertownsforrefugees@gmail.com   or to Hearts and Homes for Refugees at WRI@heartsandhomesforrefugees.org

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