There have been a lot of firsts for Hello Neighbor this year.
A first application process for refugees living in Pittsburgh and for local families who wanted to mentor them through the new program. A first class of 50 families that have spent the last month getting to know each other through first dinners, first trips to the zoo and first Ramadan celebrations.
Recently, Hello Neighbor experienced another first: the birth of a baby.
The mentorship program, founded by Sloane Davidson, launched its first class in June with 25 mentor families from 22 neighborhoods in and around Pittsburgh and 25 mentee families from six countries, including Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Myanmar and Syria. These pairs of families have met once a week on average, Davidson said, and have spent more than 450 cumulative hours together over the past month.
Some of that time has been at group events, like a day at the Warhol Museum. The mentor and mentee families will also come together for a potluck this Saturday that’s open to the general public. Events like that give refugee families an opportunity to go out to a public place — something many of the families aren’t comfortable doing alone, Davidson said — and allows Pittsburghers to connect through food and fun when language fails.
Saturday’s event at Riverview Park is also a way to involve the larger Pittsburgh community that supports refugees but doesn’t know them. Davidson said she’s regularly asked about volunteer opportunities, but doesn’t have anything to offer on that front.
“People can come and spend time together,” Davidson said. “Our time is one of the greatest gifts we have.”
Hello Neighbor, a mentorship program for refugee families, is hosting a community potluck featuring food, games and one of the Pirates Pierogies. People who aren't part of Hello Neighbor are asked to donate what they can to support the program and bring one dish to share.
Where: Locust Shelter in Riverview Park at 159 Riverview Ave. (Perry North)
When: July 8, 2017 from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
How much: Donate what you can
Hello Neighbor’s story is closely tied to Davidson’s own. She hosted a Syrian family for Thanksgiving in 2016 and began officially working with refugee families at the Northern Area Multi-Service Center the following year.
She created Hello Neighbor as a way to help refugee families after their first 90 days in Pittsburgh, when assistance from case managers and resettlement agencies declines. So far, that help has taken the form of resume writing, driving lessons and signing up for library cards. One mentor took a family with four kids to a playground for the first time, Davidson said.
The Hello Neighbor community was also there when an Afghan family recently welcomed a new baby. Davidson said she went to Target to buy diapers and wipes and asked the new dad if they could set up a meal train.
Davidson said the father didn’t want to trouble them, but she explained that helping out with meals is just something people around here do for life events like births and deaths. The man accepted, then told his family in Afghanistan about the meals, she said.
“They just wanted me to thank you all for not leaving us alone and feeling lonely,” the man said, according to Davidson. “We are lucky because we ended up in Pittsburgh.”
A Congolese mentee family had a similar experience when their child graduated from high school. While other graduates had aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins at the ceremony, the mentee family assumed it would just be them. Then their mentor showed up.
“Then we didn’t feel like we were alone,” they told Davidson, she said.
But before Hello Neighbor kicked off, Davidson also stressed that mentor families would benefit from the four-month program. That’s been the case so far.
“This has been an incredible experience,” one mentor wrote to Davidson, she said. Another told her “this is one of the most unique experiences I have ever had.” Yet another is making a scrapbook to share with the mentee family at the end of the program, although that person insists it won’t mark the end of the friendship.
Hello Neighbor has also insulated its participants from feeling dejected as hatred and fear toward immigrants and refugees across the country becomes more and more visible, Davidson said.
“We’re not feeling that in the program. We feel like we’re really doing something,” she added. “They’re really part of each other’s lives.”