Davidson quickly focused on the challenges that refugees face when trying to decipher an unfamiliar city (and country)—and doing so at a moment of heightened political tension over immigration. After volunteering at a refugee-resettlement agency and sharing Thanksgiving dinner in 2016 at a friend’s house with a Syrian refugee family, she had the idea to match new refugees with local families who could help them navigate their new community.
Pittsburgh today is a city with a much smaller immigrant population than the nation overall. But as Davidson explained the idea to local groups, she recognized that the concept reflected the city’s roots, as a hub for European immigrants during the steel industry’s heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When she speaks about the program in public, Davidson says, senior citizens will come up to her and say: “When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, someone from the old country moved into the neighborhood, and my mom made sure they had a casserole and the local church made sure the kids got in school.”
Hello Neighbor now pairs refugee families from 13 countries (including Afghanistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bhutan, and Myanmar) with up to 50 Pittsburgh families a year. Hosts are expected to spend at least 10 hours a week with their assigned family for at least six months. Davidson has also added new initiatives aimed at young mothers, as well as another that encourages refugee families to sell sweets and crafts from their native countries around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day.
Each of these programs provides practical help and guidance to the refugees. But Davidson says it’s the companionship and community that move the refugee families the most. “I know that what it really is, at its core, is that they don’t feel alone anymore,” she says.
More Than Words started in Massachusetts in 2004, after Jodi Rosenbaum, a former teacher and attorney’s assistant within the juvenile-justice system, drove past a pile of books left on the side of the road. In a flash of insight, she has said, she saw the books as a means to provide opportunity for young people who’d been failed by the systems in which she’d served. Over time, Rosenbaum established a used bookstore in Waltham, near Cambridge, where young people who are without housing, out of school, or in the court system can work and even manage the business. In 2018, she added a second bookstore in Boston’s South End; the operation has grown into a $3.3 million annual operation that serves almost 400 young people each year.
Typically, the young people who join the program work in the bookstores for six to 12 months, earning paychecks for two to three shifts a week and gradually taking on additional responsibility as managers. But the group’s leaders recognized early on that job training alone would not enable these young people to overcome all the hurdles they faced. So More Than Words added a second track, in which the participants are paid to work on advancing their personal goals. They’re given mentors to help them take concrete steps, including opening a bank account, reenrolling in school, and finding housing. “Very few are going to work in a bookstore” as a career, Parker says. “Really, what we are teaching is those fundamental skills … Young people are learning, how do you show up on time, in dress code, ready to be engaged and professional? How do you give and receive feedback? How do you ask questions? How do you train others? How do you communicate?”