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Displaced Families Transforming their New Communities into Protective and Vibrant Ecosystems in the American South

Bridge Builders transforms residents and community resources into protective ecosystems for people on the move living in the American South

Photo of Madison Hayes
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What problem does the idea help to solve and how does your solution work? (2,000 characters maximum)

The American South has become home to 300,000+ forcibly displaced people- many more without formal refugee status- with the majority hailing from Burma, Iraq, Bhutan, and the Congo. Yet, this is a region with some of the worst economic disparities, labor exploitation, and targeted anti-immigrant policies. When families are resettled here, diminishing employment opportunities, escalating affordable housing crises, and the dismantling of public benefits trap them in cyclical poverty. For those who get out, it takes, on average, 13-20 years. The federal resettlement system, historically responsible for providing critical support to families, is being dismantled quietly and swiftly. Families who have escaped large scale warfare are entering US society as second class citizens, and into a new sort of violence. In our community-designed solution- coincidentally, called Bridge Builders- forcibly displaced families work with their personal Navigators, who serve as their English-speaking liaison, cultural consultant, and emergency contact. Families (or “Members”) and their long-term Navigators work together every week to address critical needs- like finding employment, stable housing, or affordable medical care- and work toward dreams, like starting a business or going to college. Equipped with instructional modules, a technological platform for tracking socioeconomic trajectories, and a learning community of 530+ Members from 7 different countries, Bridge Builders constructs a protective ecosystem to facilitate safe passage through daily life, and cultivate a nourishing and resourced environment for pursuing dreams. Bridge Builders is a neighborhood-level model that moves the US refugee support sector to the hands of displaced families and their neighbors. There is an urgency for Bridge Builders, as federal policies eliminate the protections historically provided in the United States. The call for a community-owned model has never been so loud, nor so proximate.

Geography of focus (500 characters)

In the American South, the refugee support sector is a fractured landscape of crumbling government agencies. Unfamiliarity with US systems, language barriers, and predatory policies force families into the shadows, while the mainstream system of service does more harm than good, producing extreme social isolation and trapping families in cycles of poverty. Service providers do not offer language services (more on our language justice work below), making critical community services inaccessible.

Building Bridges: What bridge does your idea build between people on the move and neighbors towards a shared future of stability and promise? (500 characters)

Families and their Navigators’ partnerships are life long. Whether confronting predatory landlords or abusive employers, Navigators open doors that are otherwise closed. This solidarity produces powerful neighborhood collaboration, and the collective muscle for taking care of one another. Here, families are the decision-makers, offering a blueprint that is defined by fierce relationships of accountability - beautiful, messy, and deep relationships - fostering nourishing connection and belonging.

What human need is your idea solving for? (1,000 characters)

In Bridge Builders, residents with the forced displacement experience are at the helm, keeping ownership in the hands of those most affected. Families are able to communicate in their own language and gain insights from someone who went through the journey themselves. Bridge Builders addresses urgent needs while strategically leveraging social networks to achieve the dreams that families hold. Last year, while Z and A worked with their Navigator, L--who, too, was forced to flee Syria--to secure more affordable housing, their other Navigator, MB, went to work figuring out how to get A into a recording studio. In Syria, A was a professional singer, and started on his lifelong dream of recording an album. The war forced he and his family to flee, and severed him from his joy of recording his album. MB learned that a neighbor of hers was a recording studio manager, and convinced him to work with A, free of charge. A now spends Thursday evenings there, bringing the album to life.

What will be different within the community of focus as a result of implementing your idea? (1,000 characters)

We track metrics to know that action is translating into impact, and substantiate the necessity for a model to move beyond surviving, to thriving. In 2018, 460 Members worked with 240 Navigators to achieve their goals. Over the year, Members secured over 32 new jobs, gaining over $286,000 in new household income collectively. Navigators accompanied Members to 687+ critical community services like driver’s license tests and doctor’s appointments. 123 members facing potential loss of their homes prevented eviction and retained their housing by resolving communications with housing management and reconciling penalties. Addressing urgent needs opens up the space for imagination, for dreaming. For Dim, it was to start loom weaving again, a cultural craft that she and her mother led in their village in Burma. After winning an arts scholarship, Dim and her Navigator built the 85 lb loom. Today, Dim is the only Karen weaver with a traditional Karen loom in the Southeast.

What is the inspiration behind your idea? (1,000 characters)

In 2007, the first neighborhood of refugee residents in Orange County, NC began gathering weekly to discuss the hardship of life in the South. They took care of each others’ children so parents could go to work. They cooked meals for one another, so their families could spend time in ESL class. They taught one another how to drive. As this population in Orange County grew, the group wished that this sort of grassroots system of mutual support could grow with it, an ecosystem of mutual aid and neighborhood level cooperative care to be the primary support system for refugee families. For months, over hundreds of hours of living room conversations over Turkish coffee and Burmese lahpet, the group talked at length about the toll that being a “serial recipient” of social services takes on one’s sense of self worth, the feelings of isolation, despair, and loneliness it produces. The group rallied around the notion of “collective care” and thus launched Bridge Builders.

Describe the dynamics of the community in which the idea is to be implemented. (1,000 characters)

The majority of forcibly displaced families in the South hail from Burma, Iraq, Bhutan, and the Congo. In Orange County, North Carolina, 95% of the population lives below the Federal Poverty Line. Orange County ranks first in income inequality across all counties in North Carolina, and its cost of living is the highest in the state, producing generational poverty among immigrant and refugee communities. Meanwhile, lacking affordable housing has reached a crisis. Refugee families are experiencing recurring displacement and increased risk of homelessness. Refugee and immigrant residents experience housing discrimination and tenant exploitation, including long term neglect of structural damage like rotting floor systems and black mold; spurious eviction notices; and mysterious and exorbitant utility charges. Labor exploitation is rampant, with employers predatorily targeting non-English speaking workers, and anti-immigrant policies are dismantling the resources available to families.

How does your idea leverage and empower community strengths and assets to help create an environment for success? (1,000 characters)

As an environment, Bridge Builders’ is built on the organic networks of mutual support, resource and information sharing, and leadership that are already working within each culturally-unique neighborhood. Within the Congolese community, specific Congolese faith leaders serve as the Liaisons between Bridge Builders and Congolese residents, honoring the existing network of information dissemination. Among the Karen, Burmese, and Chin communities of Burma, mothers are the core body of decision-makers who drive the development and growth of Bridge Builders, utilizing the unique social structure of the largest forcibly displaced population in North Carolina. Rather than decisions being made top-down--from decisions around community engagement strategies to operational infrastructure to resource allocation--decisions are made through democratic consensus, reflecting a collective societal structure.

What other partners or stakeholders will work alongside you in implementing the idea, if any? (1,000 characters)

While Members and Navigators work together at the neighborhood level, RCP builds strategic relationships with local institutions--from local hospitals to government agencies--to achieve systemic change. We work with employers to develop creative solutions to language barriers with non-English speaking workers, and with regional hospitals to dissolve the language barriers that block non-English speaking residents from medical care. In our partnerships with municipal governments, we use local interpreters to convert emergency information into textable mp4 voice recordings to reach non-English speaking households in real time. Our partners, the Art Therapy Institute and Refugee Wellness, provide free one-on-one counseling and therapeutic support groups to Bridge Builders families. Our partnership with the UNC Doula Program provides Bridge Builders families with personalized, multi-lingual doula teams who walk alongside mothers through the entire birthing journey from start to finish.

What part of the displacement journey is your solution addressing

  • Arriving and settling at a destination community

Tell us how you'd describe the type of innovation you are proposing

  • Systems design: Solutions that target changing larger system

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Early Adoption: We have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the intended users of the idea. I have proof of user uptake (i.e. 16% to 49% of the target population or 1,000 to 50,000 users).

Group or Organization Name

the Refugee Community Partnership

Tell us more about your group or organization [or lived experience as a displaced person?] (1000 characters)

This initiative is part of the Refugee Community Partnership (RCP), a young grassroots organization in North Carolina experiencing catalytic growth. Beginning with 15 residents, RCP is now comprised of 520+ Members. On average, 15 new Members join every month. Through relationship-based support, opportunity development, and cultural stewardship, RCP forges strategically resourced relationships between refugee families and their neighbors, equipping communities with the tools and social capital needed to take care of one another, long term. Informed by the ways in which structures of power and oppression undermine cross-class and cross-race solidarity, community power-building is our guiding North Star. Members describe RCP as the organization that “shows up”, and, as such, our reputation is as a nimble organization known for the ability to meet people where they are. Here, community innovation flourishes, with new initiatives and partnerships springing out of lived experiences.

Website URL:

Type of submitter

  • We are a registered Non-Profit Organization

Organization Headquarters: Country


Organization Headquarters: City / State

Carrboro, North Carolina


Join the conversation:

Photo of korinta maldonado

Hi Madison. This project is amazing and it seems to have already steam, energy, and a great design. I will follow the project as it moves since it seems to have a very well structured core that will help us (in the beginning phase) think about our own structures and project development.

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