Hello Neighbor Pairs Local Residents with Refugees
he news from Afghanistan in recent months has been intensely personal for several Mt. Lebanon families. Refugees who fled the country two years ago because their lives were in danger had to leave behind friends, co-workers and relatives, including one family’s husband and father. Through it all they have been supported by Hello Neighbor, a local organization that pairs Pittsburgh residents with recently arrived immigrants and refugees to help them adjust to life here.
Fakhriya Hashemi of Bower Hill Road and her two daughters came to Pittsburgh in 2019 without their husband and father, Mohammad Yousuf, who was unable to leave Afghanistan. They have relied on Robin Ittigson of Squirrel Hill for support and help with English, visas, and much more. An educator, Ittigson has encouraged Fakhriya’s pre-law and English studies at Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC), and has provided clothing, meals, and supplies to the family. She has also helped interpret documents from the government, school and health care providers.
“I am extremely grateful for her friendship,” said Ittigson. “We speak often because she is extremely determined to learn to converse fluently in English.”
Sameera and Tahir Ibrahimi, Bower Hill Road, have grown close to their mentors, Bailey and Tom Kapfer of Questend Avenue. The Kapfers and their sons Julian, 5, and Marco, 3, have been a source of parenting support for Sameera and Tahir, whose son Zabi is almost 18 months old. The two families missed being together during the pandemic, but met occasionally at playgrounds where the kids could let off some energy and enjoy the outdoors while the parents chatted.
“My boys think baby Zabi is just the cutest thing!” Bailey reported.
A Mission to Welcome
Hello Neighbor has made dozens of these pairings in the four years since it was founded. The nonprofit supports more than 100 refugee and immigrant families a month, providing family mentorship, mom-to-mom support, online tutoring for youth, and essential item distribution for families in need. Since its founding in 2017, Hello Neighbor has supported more than 500 refugees and immigrants from more than 15 countries.
New arrivals are referred by social service agencies. Most refugees come from Bhutan, Myanmar, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mentors with children are generally matched with a corresponding family group, couples with couples, etc. All participants are screened beforehand and go through training. Mentors and mentees meet at least once a month, in person or digitally, for visits, outings, information sharing and assistance. Many of these relationships turn into real friendships that last for years.
“Hello Neighbor has grown in the last four years because of caring neighbors like all of you in Mt. Lebanon,” CEO and Founder Sloane Davidson said in an email. “Pittsburgh is working hard to be a welcoming and inclusive city for all, and with your help we can continue to make strides and work together in earnest to be the kinds of neighbors we want to be, welcoming our newest neighbors to the community. We look forward to many years of continued partnership with your beautiful neighborhood.”
Although couples with young children are already pressed for time and energy, many have made a point of participating in Hello Neighbor’s programs for the sake of their kids. “We liked the opportunity to share our culture with others, with our kids,” said Bailey Kapfer.
As an attorney working for a firm that did business with the U.S., Fakhriya Hashemi left Kabul and sought asylum here in January 2019 because her life was in danger. She brought her 12-year-old daughter and gave birth here to another daughter, now 2. Although they speak the language Dari at home, Fakhriya’s English is good and she is using her law background to train as a paralegal at CCAC. Her goal is to get a good job and to learn to drive.
Since her brother and sister had immigrated previously, the family was able to move into the same Mt. Lebanon apartment building. Fakhriya summed up her first impression of Pittsburgh in three words: good, beautiful, secure. She loves Mt. Lebanon and hopes to stay here.
Most of all, of course, she prayed that her husband, who had also been targeted because of his association with American forces (he worked for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs), could join them soon.
In June, Fakhriya journeyed back to Kabul with her children in hopes of enabling her husband’s safe passage. When the U.S. began evacuating in August, she and her family had to go into hiding. After a week spent trying to enter the airport and evading Taliban discovery of her documents, she got in, with some help from Senator Bob Casey. On August 29, she and her husband and daughters were flown to Germany on an American military plane. Two days after that they reached Virginia. At this writing she is back home in Mt. Lebanon with her children, awaiting her husband’s arrival following his clearance.
Sharing Family Life
Sameera and Tahir Ibrahimi left their native country because of danger to their lives from Tahir’s work with the U.S. in Afghanistan. Tahir had an Afghan friend who recommended Pittsburgh and they were able to join other Afghanis living in the South Hills after arriving in July, 2019. Tahir’s native language is Dari and Sameera’s is Pashtu, plus Tahir knows some Hindi, Urdu, and Russian. A tailor by trade, Tahir has found work downtown.
Their baby, Zabi, was born in April, 2020, at St. Clair Hospital, and Sameera stays home to care for him. They credit the Kapfers with giving them experience with little boys before Zabi was born.
What does it mean to them to have involvement with an American family? “They are our helpers and friends,” Tahir said. “Mt. Lebanon is a good community. Unfortunately we are a little apart now, but we can meet them at the park or outside. We learn so many things from them.” Hello Neighbor has also assisted with forms, resources, and helping Tahir find a job.
“Sameera is the best cook I’ve ever met!” said Bailey enthusiastically.
“Unfortunately our relationship dropped off a bit during the pandemic, although we continued to meet outside. My favorite thing is sharing holidays with them.” For son Julian’s fifth birthday, the Kapfers texted a picture. “In response, Tahir and Sameera came over with a feast Sameera had cooked. It was the nicest thing!”
The Kapfers’ interest in Hello Neighbor began a few years ago. “Tom and I started going to the ‘entrepreneurial dinners,’ where some of the women earn money by planning a menu and preparing food at a restaurant. We met people with good hearts, interested in welcoming others. But our second son was still really young, and we felt we couldn’t take on being a mentor just yet.”
Once Marco was a bit older, they were ready to meet a family, Bailey said. “We met Sameera and Tahir and loved them from day one. And they were right here in Mt. Lebanon! We like making friends and we like sharing the culture and community.” And then COVID happened. “Because the children can’t be vaccinated, indoor meet-ups are still very tough, but the boys all get along very well and are at a really good age to play together.”
The Kapfers’ sons loved baby Zabi from the start and are always excited to play with him. “It’s so nice that we’re going through so many of the same things together,” Bailey said. “It’s great to have a parallel family from another culture.”
For the immediate future they will continue to meet at the Lincoln Elementary School playground. “We’re excited to finally become part of the program,” said Tom Kapfer. “The kids are learning a lot from this experience.”