Shady Side Academy alumna Sloane Davidson started her nonprofit Hello Neighbor to partner local families with immigrants and help both to learn and grow.
Volunteers help newcomers find their way around the Pittsburgh region and make connections with the city. The program also helps volunteers better understand the immigrant experience, which Davidson says is particularly important in a city with such a diverse population.
“We need to reeducate people about what (immigration) is and who it is,” said Davidson of Squirrel Hill, a 1993 SSA graduate.
Her group is sponsoring a free showing of the documentary, “This Is Home: A Refugee Story,” which follows four Syrian families as they learn to live new lives in the U.S. An audience favorite at the Sundance Film Festival, the movie will be shown at 7 p.m. Feb. 25, at the Hillman Center for Performing Arts on the Shady Side Academy campus in Fox Chapel.
Kyle Smith, SSA history department chair, worked with Davidson to organize the screening.
“Our curriculum is designed not only to get students to engage with the past, but also to teach them to become engaged global citizens who are aware and informed of the world they inhabit,” he said.
Since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, more than 5 million people have been displaced, Smith said.
“This crisis may be occurring in a faraway place, but its effects are being felt in our neighborhoods and communities as refugees search for a place to call home.”
The teacher said Pittsburgh has a history of supporting immigrants and refugees.
“We are reminded of the words of our most famous neighbor, Fred Rogers, who said, ‘We live in a world in which we need to share responsibilities. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’”
The movie, Davidson said, “really spoke to me about how hard it is to rebuild their lives.”
Davidson said many immigrants look upon their arrival on these shores as the end of their journey, when in reality, it is just the beginning. Isolation is among the many challenges they can face.
While caseworkers and resettlement agencies provide aid, Hello Neighbor offers different support for a longer time span.
Volunteers are the basis of Davidson’s organization. About 20 to 25 Pittsburgh families are matched with an immigrant family. It’s suggested they spend about 10 hours a month together.
So far, Hello Neighbor has 75 families from 11 countries who have found mentors in the Pittsburgh area. Nearly all of the families involved have children under 18 years old, she said.
“We’re really connected with the immigrant experience,” Davidson said, pointing to Pittsburgh neighborhoods such as Polish Hill and Little Italy. “There is a lot of opportunity in Pittsburgh.”
Hello Neighbor organizes low-cost activities to facilitate the mentoring. The group visited the Warhol Museum and for many new to the city, it was their first time seeing works by the Pittsburgh artist.
For many, it also was their first time learning about any American museum.
During the summer, the group held a picnic where families shared a potluck dinner. There was a smorgasbord of specialties from around the world.
From the potluck came the idea to sell pastries at Christmas. Hello Neighbor sold baklava, basbousa, ghoriba and osh el bulbul, little dough bird nests wrapped around pine nuts.
“Pittsburghers love their cookies,” Davidson said.
Hello Neighbor also planned a Mother’s Day sale. Buyers enjoy the the delicacies and the immigrants benefit, too, with 75 cents of every dollar raised going back to the women.
“It’s a great win for them, earning money for their families,” Davidson said.
The seed for Hello Neighbor was planted in November 2016 when Davidson invited newcomers to join her for Thanksgiving dinner. She officially launched Hello Neighbor in June 2017.
She understands the neighborliness of the ‘Burgh, she said, having left the city for a dozen years. Upon returning, Davidson paid closer attention to the little things that are part of life here: people holding a door or chit-chatting in shopping lines.
“Pittsburghers are nice people, authentic.”
Tawnya Panizzi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tawnya at 412-782-2121 x1512, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .