More than a just mentorship program, she made friends to last a lifetime
As a mentor for the Pittsburgh nonprofit Hello Neighbor, Hannah Somers was a guide, a support system, and, most importantly, a new "American friend" to recently resettled refugees.
Editor’s note: Editor’s note: Hello Neighbor is a winner of the 2020 Renewal Awards, an annual program of The Atlantic and Allstate that honors nonprofits that are creatively solving problems in their communities. This summer, five winners each received a $40,000 prize from The Atlantic and Allstate. Find more essays from this year’s winners here.
In 2017, on the heels of the presidential inauguration, my mother received an email from a local organization called Hello Neighbor that paired refugee families with Pittsburgh families. They were looking for Pittsburgh families to apply to be mentors to recently resettled refugees. My grandfather had come to the United States as a refugee in the 1930’s and my mom and I felt that this was a serendipitous opportunity. It was a chance to give back to our community during a tough time for our country, and a chance to directly help refugees rebuild their lives here as other Americans had done for my grandfather so many years before.
My mother, father, and I were matched with a family of four from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rosalie, Dieudonne, Elizabeth, and Sarah had arrived in the United States the year prior, and were settling in and finding their way around their new city. Despite having been in Pittsburgh for over a year, as Sarah recently told me, they didn’t have any American friends.
When you join Hello Neighbor as a mentor, you find yourself expecting to help in tangible ways. And we did—we went to the post office to fill out a change-of-address form, helped Sarah with her math homework, helped Rosalie schedule a doctor’s appointment, and helped Elizabeth apply for jobs. But what I didn’t expect was how much they would teach me and my family, and how much they would change my outlook on life.
Rosalie has taught me to cook fufu, stirring and stirring over the hot stove until my arm starts to cramp. Elizabeth and Sarah have taught me some of their favorite dances (though I still need a lot of practice), and Dieudonne—formerly a French teacher—loves to teach me new words in Swahili. (I can now say, “I love you,” in Swahili and Chiluba!)
They’ve shown me how to be positive and optimistic in the face of adversity, how to find the good in every day, and how to have faith that things will work out. They’ve introduced me to new parts of my own city and opened my eyes to other parts of the world and new traditions.
I am grateful to be part of a team that is working day in and day out to make our community a better, safer, and more welcoming place for all immigrants and refugees.
More than anything, they’ve shown me the power of true friendship. When I needed help putting on an event for Hello Neighbor last summer, Sarah and Elizabeth were by my side the whole time. When my grandmother died, Rosalie was there showing love and support for my mom. And while we’ve all been isolated and at home due to COVID-19, Rosalie and Dieudonne’s bright smiles and infectious laughter during our weekly video chats is always a highlight.
Inspired by my friendship with this family, and aspiring to follow in the footsteps of my great grandmother who helped fellow refugees resettle in Philadelphia, I joined Hello Neighbor as a program coordinator in the Spring of 2019. Because I had been through the program as a mentor and had such an impactful experience, I wanted to help other Pittsburghers experience Hello Neighbor’s mentorship program. I wanted to help other refugee families find mentors to become their friends, advocates, and supporters.
And now, at work every day, I get to do just that! As a program manager, I support both mentors and mentees through the six-month program, checking in, listening to the needs of our families, providing advice and connections to local services, and working to always make sure that our programming puts the stated needs and wants of refugees first.
What keeps me going day after day, even in today’s crazy pandemic world where our whole team works around the clock to support refugees, is the knowledge that Hello Neighbor’s mentorship program truly provides a unique, special, and much appreciated friendship and support system for the refugees in our program. As a Burmese mother said to me recently about her mentor family, “I love [our] family very much because they helped everything for me. … I’m very grateful.”
I am grateful to be part of a team that is working day in and day out to make our community a better, safer, and more welcoming place for all immigrants and refugees. And despite the craziness of our ever-changing world, I remain excited to introduce more Pittsburghers to amazing families like Rosalie, Dieudonne, Elizabeth, and Sarah and watch how their worlds change like mine did.