Leaders of several refugee organizations from around the country spent several days in Pittsburgh recently helping Sloane Davidson formalize the Hello Neighbor Network.
Since 2017, Ms. Davidson, founder and CEO of Hello Neighbor in Pittsburgh, has pulled together a large team of local mentors and interpreters to contribute to the well-being of refugee families — 95 currently, with 25 families and new mentors added every six to nine months.
Pairing refugees with mentors is an immediate antidote to the isolation that most refugees feel long after relocation agencies have stepped away, she said.
Those services last from three to six months. That’s a reason she started Hello Neighbor.
“I thought, ‘What happens after six months?’” she said. “There was a wide spectrum of opportunity.”
She honed her affinity for this mission during a 16-year career working with nonprofits in microfinance and empowerment projects for women and girls in countries including Congo, Ghana, Guatemala and the Philippines.
She returned to Pittsburgh in 2015 and began mentoring a Syrian family, helping with mail, bus routes and homework. Through that family, she met more refugees. When she asked whether they had any American friends, they all said no.
“They were socially isolated, surviving but not thriving,” Ms. Davidson said.
She mentored more families, 25 from eight countries, before cultivating a base of mentors and interpreters.
Ms. Davidson founded Hello Neighbor in 2017 on a $30,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments, with New Sun Rising as her nonprofit agent. She now has one employee, a program manager and her own nonprofit status, with funding from several foundations.
Her small office is in a coworking space in Shadyside.
When she began a national search for people who do roughly what she does, she said, “We had an automatic camaraderie. Being a nonprofit startup founder is socially isolating, too.
“Sometimes the issues we face are the same. It’s so nice to talk to other people who get it.”
Two-thirds of the organizations are operating on less than $250,000 a year and one-third on less than $100,000, Ms. Davidson said.
The network’s purpose is to collaborate, sharing processes and methods to determine what’s working and what isn’t, she said.
“We all want to find a way for our organizations to strengthen ourselves so we can have a stronger impact on refugees,” she said. “We need collaboration now more than ever, so I went to a funder to build the network.”
Ms. Davidson found two, the Harnisch Foundation, which gave $5,000, and the Good People Fund, which gave $10,000. That $15,000 paid for travel expenses and costs of a two-day gathering of the organization leaders.
Naomi Eisenberger, co-founder and executive director of the New Jersey-based Good People Fund, said Hello Neighbor’s work is compatible with the fund’s mission.
“We fund grassroots efforts, people who are inspired to do good work,” she said. “We learned about Sloane, and when we started interacting, we emphasized the importance of bringing together other small programs like hers. She said, ‘Wow, that’s exactly what I was thinking of doing.’
“I know all these programs are struggling to do good work, and the refugee situation is such that it is all the more important that they do this together,” Ms. Eisenberger said.
The network members are Hello Neighbor; Dwell Mobile, Alabama; Heartfelt Tidbits of Cincinnati; Hearts and Homes for Refugees in Westchester County, N.Y.; Homes Not Borders of Washington, D.C.; International Neighbors of Charlottesville, Va.; Miry’s List of Los Angeles; Refugee Assistance Alliance of Miami; and Soft Landing Missoula, Mont.
Sheryl Rajbhandar founded Heartfelt Tidbits as a nonprofit in 2016, but she had been helping immigrant and refugee families in Cincinnati since 2008.
“My first refugee family was from Bhutan,” Ms. Rajbhandar said. “They were settled for 10 days in a hotel, eight people in one room, and they had not left the room because they had no concept of a door.
“They didn’t know how to get out,” she said. “With my husband translating, I asked the man what I could do to help, and he said, ‘Send me back to the refugee camp.’ I said, ‘I will guarantee you that this will be your home and you will be happy here.’ That is what drives me every day.”
Ms. Rajbhandar said she had been following the work of Hello Neighbor when Ms. Davidson called her.
“I said, ‘I can’t believe this, I’m so excited,’” Ms. Rajbhandar said. “I felt isolated, too, even though there are groups working with refugees, they only do one thing, like resettle or advocacy. That isn’t all these folks need.
“The program Sloane is running reminded me of our Adopt-a-Family program, but she was so much smarter, and I am so enamored of her work.”
One belief that drives all the women of the network, Ms. Rajbhandar said, is “that everyone in the world is pretty much the same, just in different places.”