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With U.S. Mentors, 'Hello Neighbor' Helps Refugees Start New Lives

"Hello Neighbor" matches refugee families with a U.S. mentors, who show their mentees everything from writing checks and driving to visiting zoos and museums.
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When Tulasa Rai and her husband Gupta came to the U.S. as refugees from Bhutan seven years ago, they didn’t know what activities to have their young sons take part in.

But an American mentor, who was matched with the Rais earlier this year, found a program at a local hardware store that provides free weekly classes about construction, giving the family an educational activity to do together.

“My boys love it so much,” Tulasa Rai told NBC News.

“I try to imagine coming to the U.S. with the cultural, language, financial, and technological barriers they experienced, and I'm overwhelmed thinking about how I'd survive, let alone thrive."

The Rais and their mentors, the Emmerlings, are part of “Hello Neighbor,” an organization that matches refugee and American families in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area.

Started earlier this year by Sloane Davidson, the program seeks to help refugees adjust to life in the U.S. after their initial resettlement.

Twenty-five matches have been made as part of Hello Neighbor’s pilot project, which started in June and runs through September, according to Davidson. More than 180 people — including children — are participating, and a “graduation” featuring a speaker, food, and entertainment is scheduled for October.

A new application period is scheduled to open up in November with a new class expected to start in early 2018.

“One of the things that really kept coming to my mind is, if you spend an hour with someone from a different culture than you or more than one hour, you get to become friends with them, your views can radically change how you view their life and the culture and who they are,” Davidson, who has previously worked in nonprofits and international development, said.

Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, welcomed 651 refugees last year, according to data released by the Pennsylvania Refugee Resettlement Program. Over the past decade, more than 4,000 refugees from places including Bhutan, Myanmar, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have been settled in the county. Davidson said mentees in the Hello Neighbor program come from all of those countries plus Rwanda.

Davidson got the idea for the program after befriending a local Syrian family and having them over for dinner. She said they slowly started asking not for things but for help understanding American culture, like what Thanksgiving and Christmas are about.

When she shared her experience with friends, several said they would love to do something similar.

Davidson said she did extensive research before starting Hello Neighbor, speaking to people from successful resettlement programs and mentoring organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“I was in a mid-career masters program, and my capstone project was on the concept for Hello Neighbor, so there was also a lot of academic research and policy consideration,” Davidson said.

The program is family-friendly, and mentors go through an extensive screening process before they are matched with a refugee family, Davidson noted.

The mentors run the gamut: One is an anthropologist who has done international work in Madagascar. Another family homeschools their son and — though they don’t have passports — wanted to give him a global experience.

The mentees, meanwhile, are refugees from different countries who Davidson consulted with before creating the program.

“It was really important to me that I was building it with the refugees. … And not just delivering a program to them,” she said, adding that she met with families in their homes, in their places of worship, and with former refugees to learn how to best develop the program.

To match families or individuals, Davidson looks at geography, age, interests, and chemistry.

Both sides must make a time commitment, she noted, adding that they meet once per week doing a variety of activities. They may do more life skills such as learning to write a check or practice for a driver’s test, or do something fun like going to a zoo or out for ice cream.

“Going to the zoo might seem ho-hum for Americans, but it’s a really big deal for someone who has never been or might not have the money to,” she said.

“It was really important to me that I was building it with the refugees. … And not just delivering a program to them.”

The most rewarding part for Davidson has been seeing relationships develop between families and seeing the refugee families become more empowered.

Kathleen Madonna Emmerling, 38, is a mentor along with her husband and three children to the Rais. Together the families have gone to an arts festival, shared meals at each other's homes, gone on a nature hike, taken the kids to a woodworking class at a local store, enjoyed a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game, and visited a splash park and playgrounds.

“I underestimated how much the Rais would teach me,” Emmerling said. “I try to imagine coming to the U.S. with the cultural, language, financial, and technological barriers they experienced, and I'm overwhelmed thinking about how I'd survive, let alone thrive. They are so incredibly generous and filled with joy.”

The Rais, meanwhile, say they enjoyed hiking because they used to spend a lot of time outdoors in their home country.

Tulasa Rai said she feels like a cloud has been lifted from her shoulders due to the new friends she has met through Hello Neighbor.

“It has been very hard to adjust to a new place, and I have made some friends from my country that are here, but Kathleen is my first American friend,” she said. “I love that our families spend time together and our children are friends too.”

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