It all started with a Thanksgiving dinner last November, when Sloane Davidson hosted a family of Syrian refugees to share in the great American tradition of roast turkey, cranberry sauce, and pecan pie.
Davidson, a Pittsburgh native with almost two decades of experience working in international development around the world, had been paired with the Syrian family through an Airbnb program that matched American families with recently resettled refugee families to celebrate Thanksgiving together.
Davidson was initially apprehensive – would the guests find her family too loud? Would they be overwhelmed by all the English-speaking strangers? But the dinner turned out to be a success.
“They are such kind and sweet people,” Davidson said, recalling the November evening. “I would sit with them and drink Turkish coffee and they would tell me about their journey” from Turkey, where the family had spent two years after fleeing from Syria.
The two families kept in touch, and soon Davidson invited them to more of her family gatherings.
“We just really developed an authentic friendship,” she said.
That friendship has now grown into something bigger: Hello Neighbor, a mentorship program that matches American families with refugee and immigrant families who have recently arrived in the United States.
Refugees arriving in the United States are assisted by one of nine resettlement agencies, which help families with essential services like housing, employment, food, medical care, and counseling. But the agencies only provide assistance for the first 90 days, after which the refugees are basically on their own.
“What happens after, when they’re no longer working with the agency? What happens next?” asked Davidson.
It is here that Hello Neighbor steps in, helping refugees with the long process of adjusting to a new culture and integrating into life in the United States. So far, twenty-five families from Bhutan, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan have been matched with 25 American families through Hello Neighbor’s pilot program in Pittsburgh. Over a four-month period, the mentor families are encouraged to have “one quality interaction a week” with their assigned refugee family. Hello Neighbor also organizes regular get-togethers, like potluck dinners, picnics, and a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game.
Hello Neighbor taps into “this feeling of neighborhood, of community, and this longing for how we used to support new people who moved into our neighborhood,” said Davidson. “We are social creatures, and we like to share, and we like to be there for each other,” she added.
Noorulhaq Fazly is grateful to have someone help him and his family with their adjustment to the U.S.
Fazly hadn’t wanted to leave his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, to come to the U.S. But circumstances left him with no other choice: he had received threats to himself and his family for working as a political adviser to the U.S. Department of State.
Fazly arrived in the U.S. last June, and knew that he would have to work hard to integrate into his new community. The Hello Neighbor program, which his resettlement caseworker told him about, has helped his family immensely, he said.
“We’re not just mentor or mentees,” he said of his relationship with Christian Manders and Cindy Chung, with whom his family was matched. “We’re friends. We’ve even become relatives. On weekends, we hang out, they come over to our house, we chat on the phone.”
Manders and Chung have helped Fazly with everything from fine-tuning his résumé and introducing him to potential employers, to figuring out how to shuttle two toddlers between two different schools, and scouting out a new neighborhood to call home.
While the program establishes mentor-mentee relationships between families, Davidson said that the goal is to educate and empower both sides.
“There’s as much to learn on one side as there is on the other,” she said. The refugees “are people to look up to. These are people who have persevered,” she added.
Hello Neighbor is currently funded by two grants from the Heinz Endowments and USA for UNHCR, and Davidson is looking for more funding as she sets her sights on bigger goals – perhaps expanding beyond refugees, and helping other populations who may similarly feel isolated.
“Who’s to say it couldn’t include veterans, or people who’ve been incarcerated?” she said.
But any future plans for Hello Neighbor will be guided by the needs and desires of those she is trying to help, said Davidson.
“I don’t want to go into communities thinking I know what they need,” she said. “They know what they need.”