Organization Info

Building Hope in the City
Type: FBO
Sector: ESL/Refugee/Immigrant
City: Cleveland
Best Practice Program: Refugee Resettlement Services


Building Hope in the City

Building Hope in the City’s refugee resettlement and immigrant programs are building bridges between cultures leading to a healthier community in Cleveland. 

Building Hope into Refugee Families through Mentoring  


Building Hope in the City’s refugee resettlement and immigrant programs are ultimately about relationships. Program director Eileen Wilson says, “That one relationship [for a mentor of a refugee] opens their eyes to everybody else in the community and people begin to see their community differently.”

According to the Refugee Processing Center, since 2001, 2694 refugees have been placed in the Cleveland area, over 400 last year alone. Through its already established ESL classes, Building Hope saw a need for more involvement in the lives of these refugees. So five years ago they began a mentoring program where Building Hope partners with a resettlement agency—an organization with the legal contract to bring refugees to the United States—by providing volunteers who agree to mentor a newly arrived refugee family. Catholic Charities and Asia Inc, two of these resettlement agencies, come to Building Hope when they have particularly difficult family situations, such as a single mom, a family with many children, or a child with a disability. Three to four volunteers commit as a group to being friends and cultural guides to the family for three months, helping the family to become self-sufficient. The mentors will answer questions about anything from what comes in the family’s mailbox to how to interact with their neighbors. They will show the family how to use public transportation and the library, take them to the park, help set up bank accounts, and teach how to write checks and get to the doctor. Building Hope has served over 500 refugees since 2008 and 110 refugees (adult and children) were paired with a mentor in 2012.

Building Hope collaborated with Catholic Charities to develop Refugee Mentor Training, a three-hour training session that provides volunteers with plentiful, relevant information. The resettlement agency offers cross-cultural training and information about the refugees’ histories and what they will face in their first 90 days in America. Building Hope then gives volunteers a clear picture of their vision for restoring families to God and helping them flourish. The training acknowledges that it is easy for volunteers to get overwhelmed with the many needs of the refugee families and reassures the mentors that they do not to need to meet every need the family has. The training also teaches mentors how to watch out for sexual predators and scam artists who might prey on this vulnerable population.

Mentors are asked to be in contact with the refugees at least once a week for at least an hour and a half per week for three months. Almost 100% of the mentors stay with their refugee family for six months or longer and are available even years later to offer guidance about large purchases or employment decisions. Building Hope has found that refugees who have this relational connection to an American in their community become self-sufficient faster. They don’t rely as heavily on their resettlement agency caseworker; they are more likely to buy houses and cars, open businesses, or get good jobs because the mentor provides a safety net of advice and connections; they know their neighbors and have better relationships with Americans; they are better with personal finances; and they are physically and emotionally healthier. Mentored refugees also tend to learn English faster when they combine Building Hope’s ESL classes with the practice they get in the safety of their own home with their mentor. Ultimately, a bond forms that becomes a friendship. One refugee was even the best man in his mentor’s wedding! The friendships also transform the mentors, who begin to truly see other people in their community who might otherwise have been invisible to them. Says Wilson, “They don’t see a refugee who is not their responsibility, but they see a friend in need.”

BHITC-refugee family

In addition to the mentoring program, Building Hope offers what they call “New American Cafes” to refugees. These are larger gatherings held on a regular basis to encourage social interaction and teach a skill-building lesson on understanding life and culture in America. 150 refugees were reached through these gatherings last year. Tutoring and after-school care for refugee children round out the holistic care Building Hope offers.

Building Hope stretches its services to these new community members by participating in the Refugee Services Collaborative. This association coordinates assistance for new refugees, eliminating duplications in service. Building Hope also partners with the Neighborhood Family Practice, the organization that holds the medical contract for refugees. If a care provider sees a refugee with a health problem, Building Hope will provide a mentor to help. For instance, Building Hope sent a volunteer mentor who was a nurse to help a teenage refugee girl who was struggling with an eating disorder.

Factors contributing the effectiveness of the Building Hope refugee resettlement program include:

  • ESL classes teach a practical use of English–refugees learn how to talk to the doctor or teacher about a child, read a letter from the teacher, buy things at the store, or greet a neighbor
  • One-on-one mentoring combined with larger group social gatherings
  • Effective volunteer training and vision casting
  • Rather than bringing people to their space for services, Building Hope uses churches and other facilities already in neighborhoods where care recipients live