Refugees will benefit from this mentorship program, but mentors will, too

Want to learn more about Hello Neighbor? There’s an information meeting Wednesday.

A yard sign welcoming immigrants in Highland Park.

A yard sign welcoming immigrants in Highland Park.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

After the November election, Sloane Davidson signed up to host refugees for Thanksgiving and shared a meal with her family, plus a family of five from Syria. By Jan. 20 — the day Donald Trump became president — she was officially working at the Northern Area Multi Services Center, which helps resettle refugees in Pittsburgh.

Now Davidson has launched her latest project, Hello Neighbor, which seeks to connect people born in the U.S. with people who’ve left their homelands in a way that benefits both parties.

Hello Neighbor’s pilot will likely only focus on refugees, but Davidson said she wants the mentorship program to eventually be open to immigrants and members of other populations like seniors and the unhoused. The program already has the support of elected officials including Councilman Dan Gilman and members of the refugee resettlement community, Pittsburgh City Paper reported.

Applications became available Monday and will be accepted for one month. (Update: Because of the amount of interest, the deadline to apply is April 9.) People interested in learning more can come to an in-person information event Wednesday at The Shop in Homewood or can check out an online session Sunday evening.

Davidson said she’s also “available to speak to any groups and gatherings,” and is already set to present to an action group in Sewickley and a church meet-up at the Baldwin Library.

Become a mentor to a refugee or immigrant living in Pittsburgh

Hello Neighbor is a mentorship program that matches people who were born in the U.S. with refugees and immigrants living in Pittsburgh. Organizers will hold an in-person info session to answer questions. A second info session, this one online, will take place April 2.

Where:The Shop-Homewood at 621 N. Dallas St. (Homewood)

When:March 29, 2017 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.

How much:Free

Hello Neighbor is akin to other mentorship programs, Davidson said, but it’s more involved than say a postcard writing session (which she also does, btw). Davidson is seeking responsible mentors who are willing to be part of something new, will be understanding of “language and cultural barriers” and who are “empathetic and dedicated to the well-being of others.”

The four-month program, which begins in June, requires that mentors have “one quality interaction a week with a refugee family.” That could be a Sunday supper or a trip to the zoo, or during some hectic weeks, it’s just touching base with one another, Davidson said.

That support is what many of these refugee families need. “There’s a big cliff that happens after 90 days,” she said. There’s still assistance from case managers and resettlement agencies, but the amount does go down.

The experience of being in Pittsburgh can be isolating, and these families need help to navigate a foreign system. A Burmese family Davidson has spoken to, for example, needs help enrolling their son in pre-school. That’s what she wants the mentors and refugees families to have: a defined “goal to help the families thrive in Pittsburgh.”

Davidson is equally focused on the experience for the mentors, who will attend a summit that helps them become refugee advocates. She sees Hello Neighbor as a professional development program of sorts, which is one of the reasons why mentors are required to pay $200 to participate. Thirty percent of that fee will go into a fund that will help the refugees pay for things like childcare.

“People value things they pay for,” Davidson said. “I want them to have skin in the game.”

It’s also one way to make the program sustainable, said Davidson, who has worked in and around nonprofits for 15 years and believes the traditional model is broken. Hello Neighbor is also seeking support from foundations and outside grants.

Both refugees and people in volunteering situations can feel isolated, Davidson said: refugees, who go to work or school then go home, and volunteers, who do their good deed then leave without a connection or network. There will be potlucks and opportunities like attending Pirates games, so the mentors can come together. And for the refugees, they’ll have an individual or family to have over to share coffee or sweets with.

More than a one-time ride to the grocery store, these families want to get to know and build relationships with Americans, Davidson said.

“The term mentor really doesn’t translate, but friend does.”