Initiative Matches Refugee Families to New Neighbors: 'A Friendly Connection Can Make All the Difference'
The first time I visited Mawah's* house, she called me her sister. I was only there to drop off donated diapers and baby supplies from a friend of mine, but Mawah invited me in—more like, insisted I stay—for a drink, and ushered me into her home. As we sat on cushions and drank traditional Afghan tea together, I felt so comfortable, so taken care of, so appreciated. Despite the fact that she was still so new to this country, Mawah taught me how to make someone feel welcomed.
Later that year, I founded New Neighbors Partnership (NNP), which connects newly arrived refugee families in New York City to their new neighbors. Rather than run clothing drives—which are anonymous, time-consuming (to solicit, sort, store, and distribute donations), and only provide a temporary fix for kids who will outgrow everything in a matter of months—New Neighbors Partnership matches newly arrived refugee families with local families who have slightly older kids and can pass along clothes to the same family each season for at least three years. This model turns what is normally a one-time "charity" donation into a longstanding relationship between families who may have otherwise never met. And that friendly connection can sometimes make all the difference.
Our new neighbors come from all over the world: They're journalists from South Asia who were persecuted by their government, survivors of human trafficking from El Salvador, families escaping religious discrimination in Ukraine, and translators who assisted U.S. troops in Afghanistan and were forced to flee during the Taliban takeover. No matter where they're from, they've come to America seeking a safer life for themselves and their children. We're here to welcome them to the neighborhood.
In just three years, New Neighbors Partnership has supported more than 300 kids with over 1,500 clothing packages. But what starts with a package of clothing often turns into something deeper. Some of our partnered families have become close friends, meeting for play dates and family meals. Even for those families who have never met in person, the connection still exists; both for local families who find a meaningful home for their kids' clothes and have the privilege of being a small part of another family's journey, and for the newly arrived family to know that someone in this overwhelming city cares about them.
One family from Guatemala was matched with Elisha* at the beginning of 2020, and Elisha has been mailing clothing packages from her own teen daughter ever since. The two families recently met for the first time (after nearly two years of mailed packages and notes) at a community picnic New Neighbors Partnership hosted in Brooklyn. The first meeting was magical—it was clear, though they'd never met in person, that they felt deeply connected to each other. They traded stories of how their families came to America and bonded over their shared passion of embroidery. Toward the end of the event, the eldest daughter said to me, "We don't have anyone here except our mom and you guys. It means everything to have you behind us."
Sometimes these meetings are virtual—like for Liana Popova's family, who has been matched with Megan's* family for three years. When the two families finally met (virtually), their kids were so excited to show each other their artwork and Popova's boys proudly showed their grandfather's chess set that they brought with them from Ukraine. Popova, bringing extensive education and experience with her to the United States, now serves as the financial officer for New Neighbors Partnership.
At the meetings between families, we sometimes ask folks to bring items from their family's country of origin or items that represent their connection to their family history. Families share these meaningful objects and bond over their families' stories.
Adriel Koschitzky, who sits on our board of directors, holds a pin from his grandmother whose family emigrated to Canada after Kristallnacht, the night Nazis in Germany vandalized Jewish homes, schools, synagogues, and businesses, sending families to concentration camps. She now presides over immigration ceremonies where new Canadian citizens are sworn in.
Eva Lifsec, who volunteers for NNP as a resource navigator (translating and helping newly arrived families connect to local opportunities), presents a souvenir from Bogota from her Colombian grandmother.
Martina's* family wears traditional hand-crafted Guatemalan clothes that can take up to six months to craft.
Thomas* shows a 40-year-old metronome from his grandmother that has traveled with him across continents, and his wife Elisha shares a hand-embroidered pillowcase made by her grandmother in Mexico from a flour sack. Their daughter wears a ring from her grandmother who fled Eastern Europe to Germany.
Casey's* family holds photos from their Jewish ancestors born in Russia and Poland. "They showed up here with nothing but family and tradition," she says, "and that's what we carry on."
My own family has been in America for many generations, but they first arrived much like the families I've met through New Neighbors Partnership: mostly alone and without a firm grasp of the culture or the language.
In 2018, just as this idea was growing into a community initiative, my aunt Leslie passed away. She devoted so much time and energy throughout her life to welcoming refugees, creating a strong connection with a newly arrived Russian family in her community, and teaching ESL classes for newly arrived immigrants. She was endlessly curious, loved to learn languages, and made unlikely connections with people that she valued deeply, whether it was the librarian she saw each week or the staff of the local animal shelter. The embroidery I'm holding was made by her. It lives on my desk, where I spend seven, eight, 10 hours a day reading family intake forms, logging packages, practicing my Spanish or Pashto, writing grant requests, coordinating delivery logistics, and of course, that magical moment of connection where I get to call a newly arrived family, and say Hola, say Comment allez-vous?, say Ze chaim manana, say Welcome.
*Names have been changed or last names withheld to protect identities.