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Hello Neighbor: Helping Create a New Home for Arab Refugees in Pittsburgh

posted on: Jul 5, 2020

Hello Neighbor: Helping Create a New Home for Arab Refugees in Pittsburgh
Looking out over the Ohio River: one of Pittsburgh’s defining features, courtesy of Hello Neighbor

By: Emily Tain/Arab America Contributing Writer

No matter which country one comes from, being a refugee or immigrant can be terrifying. Arab immigrants and refugees face a plethora of obstacles ranging from language barriers to adjusting to culture shock to discrimination both socially and in the workforce. This is no different in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: unfamiliar and all-together confusing streets combined with “Pittsburghese” accents that make locals difficult to understand can paint an unwelcoming scene for anyone moving to the city. There is, however, an invaluable resource a refugee or immigrant family can apply to utilize: “Hello Neighbor.”

What is “Hello Neighbor”?

Hello Neighbor: Helping Create a New Home for Arab Refugees in Pittsburgh
From “Hello Neighbor’s” Facebook: “Our team has been working diligently to check in on mentors and mentees and support the families who are being hit the hardest as the city responds to the spread of this virus”

“Hello Neighbor” is a non-profit mentorship program that matches recently resettled immigrant and refugee families with mentors and mentor families in Pittsburgh. The 95 mentee families currently involved with “Hello Neighbor” (98% of which have children under 18) come from 12 different countries. These include Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Algeria. 

A mentor can provide several types of support: finding places to grocery shop (other than Giant Eagle) that suit the family’s needs, assisting mentees with employment and financial paperwork, and generally helping families feel like Pittsburgh is a second home. “Language and transportation are two of the biggest barriers we see with many families,” says Community Events Coordinator Makaela Press. By being there to help with things such as translations and bus routes, mentors can aid their mentees in becoming comfortable with their new surroundings.

Joining the Community

Hello Neighbor: Helping Create a New Home for Arab Refugees in Pittsburgh
Baklava Prepared for the New Neighbor Cookie Table, courtesy of Hello Neighbor’s Facebook

Aside from mentoring, “Hello Neighbor” has a multitude of programs to help enrich the lives of their mentees. For example, “Hello Neighbor” seeks to give refugee women the opportunity to earn an independent income through the “Food Social Enterprise.” One element of this initiative is the New Neighbor Cookie Table where Syrian refugee mothers make and sell desserts from their home countries at a 75% profit. The program is based on a staple of all Pittsburgh weddings: a giant cookie table with a wide assortment of baked goods, such as pizzelles, buckeyes and lady lox. Community dinners also give mentees the opportunity to share their culture while gaining financial independence; refugee women partner with local chefs to make meals for anyone that would like to support “Hello Neighbor.” Previous dinners have consisted of food made by Syrian and Nepalese mentees.

Impact on the Community

The tools “Hello Neighbor” gives its participants last a lifetime and have profound impacts on their immediate localities. One story shared in the 2019 Impact Report highlights the incredible things mentee families can achieve once their skills in an American setting are realized. Ayla, originally from Homs, Syria, resettled in Pittsburgh in 2016 with her husband and four children. She joined “Hello Neighbor” in 2017, and during her time with her mentor family she discovered a love for cooking Syrian food for others.

In 2019, Ayla was a featured chef in one of the aforementioned community dinners. After working alongside a Pittsburgh restaurant professional, Ayla finally gained the confidence to kickstart her dream of owning her own restaurant. Later that year, Ayla and her family were able to buy a space in Morgantown, West Virginia (around an hour away from Pittsburgh) and opened Rawabi Mediterranean Grill. You can visit their website here. Though just one testimonial, the impact “Hello Neighbor” and its mentees have on the surrounding community are helping make Pittsburgh a better city.

Effects of COVID-19

It is no surprise that a non-profit like “Hello Neighbor” has experienced the impact of COVID-19. The following is a timeline of “Hello Neighbor’s” formal announcements relating to the virus:

March 13th – Efforts to reduce in-person contact between office members as well as mentor-mentee families begin, “Hello Neighbor” starts collecting online resources for families

March 16th – Offices close, mentorship and other programs are put on pause

March 24th – Emergency phone calls with the city, county and state as well as other refugee and immigrant collaboratives, “Hello Neighbor” gathers information on resources for low-income and out-of-work communities so that it can be relayed to their mentee families

March 30th – Founder Sloane Davidson releases this video

March 31st – Launch of the Refugee Assistance Fund, 100% of donations go to the recently resettled refugees to “help meet immediate needs”

April 15th – $40,000 is raised for the Refugee Assistance Fund in just 15 days

April 22nd – Partnerships start with 412 Food Rescue and The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank to distribute food to mentee families; employees deliver food to 67 families in the program

April 24th – Several mentors begin sewing masks and creating kits for families with members on the frontline in high-risk areas, 150 masks produced thus far

May 4th – Pittsburgh magazine launches initiative to support local nonprofits including “Hello Neighbor”

To see the updated timeline, click here.

Staying Connected

According to Press, families have been “video chatting, calling, texting and dropping off supplies to one another.” This can range from delivering homemade meals to each other’s houses to video chatting while baking. Press acknowledges that during this difficult time, it can be hard for some families to connect. “Some mentor families are two parents that work full time and are suddenly trying to manage full-time jobs while homeschooling their kids, and it’s too much to manage another relationship,” Press explains. “Hello Neighbor” is flexible none the less and does their best to help families meet each other halfway.

Moving Forward

When asked how “Hello Neighbor” plans to move forward with operations as restrictions are slowly lifted, Press says that “We want to ensure that relationships are continuing to grow in a way that is intentional and safe.” At the moment, indoor gatherings are discouraged, as in accordance with Allegheny Country guidelines. Press continues, “That being said we are encouraging outdoor, socially-distant gathering if both mentors and mentees are comfortable.” The staff advises that families wear masks and are clear with where they have been in the last few days. As indicated in the timeline, “Hello Neighbor” has given reusable masks to many of their mentees so that this, as well as essential outings, can be done safely.




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