By Barrett Seaman—
Dobbs Ferry resident Niall Cain, an architect by profession, helped load up a church van with furniture and other household goods. Anne Mahaney of Hastings spent three hours helping to clean an apartment in the Ludlow section of Yonkers. Sue Smith, also of Hastings, loaded up her station wagon with kitchen furniture and utensils.
Their work, coordinated by Irvington resident Steve Grieder, was done on behalf of an Afghan family of seven—two parents and five children, ages one through twelve—recently arrived in the U.S. under the SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) program designed to give the families of Afghani citizens who helped Americans during the 20-year war start life anew here.
Cain, Mahaney, Smith and Grieder are part of the local and last link in a chain of volunteers that has been operating for six years in Westchester, doing what is necessary to make starting a new life in a new country as easy as is possible. In the beginning, the families they helped re-settle were largely from Central and South America, later from Syria and Iraq. The Hudson Independent profiled the group, called Rivertowns for Refugees. (https://thehudsonindependent.com/rivertowns-for-refugees-a-neighbors-helping-neighbors-approach-to-refugee-resettlement/) last year. Then, however, the Trump administration’s immigration policies were still making opportunities to help resettle refugees frustratingly rare.
Not so now, with the influx of SIV families that has the full backing of the federal government and the assistance of veteran major players like Catholic Charities and HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) that work directly with the U.S. State Department on a national scale.
“There was some waiting and frustration involved,” admits Niall Cain, who has been involved in Rivertowns for Refugees since the early days. “Now, finally, the trickle has turned into a flow.”
The group, which Steve Grieder helped found and keep alive during the lean early years, is one of a dozen similar groups that have sprouted up in Westchester County since 2015. Going forward in dealing with increased traffic, Rivertowns for Refugees will be working more closely with a larger group, Hearts and Homes for Refugees. The family of seven preparing to move into the apartment in Ludlow is the first for the combined volunteer effort.
The volunteer role in resettlements follows certain protocols. The State Department handles all the paperwork and vetting process so that by the time families arrive stateside, they are fully cleared. But they often arrive with little or next to nothing in terms of money, food, clothing, jobs and often even the most basic English language skills. Local support groups make a commitment to support and sustain these immigrant families for one year. They raise funds to pay for housing, a car if needed and food. They help find employment and medical care, get kids settled in schools and parents in English language classes, if necessary, and they raise the money needed to accomplish all that.
Last year, the Rivertowns group took sole responsibility for an Afghani couple who arrived under the auspices of HIAS just as the pandemic was taking hold. Fortunately, their English was quite good, and without children to complicate the process, they were able to find employment and an apartment in White Plains relatively quickly. Working with them directly, recalls Sue Smith, helped put flesh and bones on an issue that often seems remote and impersonal. “They were real people whom we could relate to and make such a dramatic change in their lives.” Smith had an occasion to accompany the couple into New York City for appointments. She recalls taking great pleasure in watching the couple’s reaction to the city and their eagerness to learn how to use the subway system to visit acquaintances in Queens. Last June, the cadre of Rivertown residents had a potluck picnic with the couple to celebrate their assimilation into American life.
The coming flow of families is certain to be more challenging. As Steve Grieder wrote to his fellow volunteers late last month, two other families beyond the current large one settling in Ludlow are expected, one a family of five. “We are also hearing that quite a number of *Humanitarian Parole* cases could be coming to our area.” Relying on a local real estate agent, Hearts & Homes for Refugees found the apartment in Yonkers. When Anne Mahaney went there to clean the place up, she worked alongside a volunteer she hadn’t met from Hearts & Homes for Refugees.
To prepare for the new wave, these volunteers are forming up into a dozen committees assigned to specific tasks. Anne Mahaney signed up for the education committee, since her background is in teaching and teacher training. Others went on what Grieder described as “a shopping spree” for furniture at a place in White Plains called Furniture Sharehouse, loading up a 15-ft. U-Haul for eventual delivery in Ludlow.
Niall Cain, a warden at Dobbs’ Ferry’s Zion Episcopal Church, arranged for the families to come to the church’s thrift shop to pick out clothing for themselves—a far more efficient and personal way to provide clothing than delivering a boxful of generic garments that might or might not fit. Cain has also recruited Zion’s Sexton, Pablo Nunez, to use the church van to shuttle donations to various immigrant families.
‘No particular skill set is required to join the refugee volunteer effort but there can be a place for every skill. For example, Kay O’Keefe, a Rivertowns for Refugees board member, is a retired nurse who used her extensive experience with the medical system to make sure an immigrant child with a serious condition got the treatment that was called for. Others serve as Jacks of All Trades, filling in where needed.
Sue Smith has done volunteer work in Hastings for 50 years and had run a lot of organizations but says “I didn’t want to be the person in charge.” She went to one of Steve Grieder’s organizing meetings at the Church of St. Barnabas in Irvington and saw a chance to make a direct difference with people. She doesn’t have any special expertise, she says, “but I know the community and I know people.”
As the trickle of refugee families turns to a flow, Rivertowns for Refugees is looking for more hands on deck, as are other volunteer groups with whom they will be working. Those interested in volunteering are encouraged to write to email@example.com or to Hearts and Homes for Refugees at heartsandhomesforrefugees.org. Donations are welcome as well.