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Refugee Voices Peer Network

We seek to develop and test a platform for former refugees to serve as mentors and social networks to recent arrivals in two US locations.

Photo of Jessica Kirk-Bowman
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What problem does the idea help to solve and how does your solution work? (2,000 characters maximum)

Each year, the US government determines the number of refugees who can be permanently settled to the country and manages their admission process. After their arrival, non-profit organizations, including the International Rescue Committee (IRC), help refugees to integrate by finding housing, learning English, applying for jobs, accessing transportation, and enrolling in school. Aside from this initial assistance, social networks are critical for long-term success (e.g., in career development, educational attainment, and achieving other personal goals). However, by the very nature of being newcomers, most newly arrived refugees lack these connections. This project would identify former refugees who are willing to serve as resources to newer arrivals, either on a one-time basis for specific topics (e.g., accessing jobs in a particular field or purchasing a home) or for a sustained period of time. This interaction could take place either in-person or virtually (phone or online). In two US cities where IRC works, our staff would recruit mentors from among our former clients and the broader former refugee community. Staff would also identify those refugees who are interested in and could benefit from mentorship support and pair them with mentors. This mentorship would be mutually beneficial as mentees gain culturally-competent peer support and mentors gain experience as community leaders through sharing their experience with others and creating social bonds. In the first year, each project site would aim to make 15 pairings, including a mix of one-time and ongoing pairings. This need and desire for establishing connections between refugees at different stages of their experience emerged from conversations with former refugee staff and community participants in IRC’s Refugee Voices initiative, which is outlined below. The benefit of connecting with someone whose lived experience reflects your own as you both navigate new territory is something to which all can relate.

Geography of focus (500 characters)

Abilene, Texas and Salt Lake City, Utah. These two communities already have established communities of former refugees, ongoing resettlement of refugees, and thriving receiving communities. IRC offices in both locations have mentorship program infrastructure, experience, and networks that could be adapted for the purposes of piloting this program. Piloting this program in two communities would provide learnings on program feasibility in different contexts.

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)

Social bonds and bridges are critical for newcomers. Current evidence suggests that programs using community liaisons, usually members of the refugee community who have adapted to the receiving community, may be successful at building social bridges between the receiving community and new arrivals. Additional evidence indicates that linking existing entities or networks with new arrivals may be a successful approach to building social bridges and fostering mutual understanding and inclusion.

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

Refugees who settle in the US are afforded a chance to create a new life, free from fear and persecution. These newcomers work hard to start over in their adoptive country. The opportunity to be connected with someone who has been in their shoes and can coach them through challenging transitions can foster hope for what the future can bring in their new home. Additionally, refugees arrive with rich backgrounds and experiences in their home countries and countries of transit. It takes incredible strength and resilience to create a new life in a new country, and others can learn from their valuable experiences. Being viewed as a leader in one’s own right and recognized for the contributions one makes is a dignifying experience. Having the opportunity to serve in a meaningful leadership role in one’s community and country while “paying it forward” to others and making new connections can also foster joy and a sense of personal fulfillment.

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

Communities thrive when everyone has the ability to harness their full potential. This idea harnesses the strengths and experiences of former refugees to support other refugees as they establish new lives in their new homes. In turn, the mentees become better equipped to navigate the systems and networks needed to succeed in the US. Currently, these types of peer support opportunities tend to be ad hoc and vary by program. This project would provide a structure and a platform that can be tested for national expansion across programs. IRC will track the project’s impact by conducting short pre- and post-assessments for mentorship pairings. For shorter interventions (one-time conversations about a specific issue), IRC staff will do brief (1-2 questions) follow-up outreach to assess whether and how the connection helped address the issue. IRC will also assess the difference between in-person and virtual connections, and between this peer mentorship model and other mentorship programs.

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

IRC launched Refugee Voices in 2018, a platform for former refugees to advocate, tell their story, volunteer, or take actions to support refugees and refugee programs in the US. The platform is open to all resettled refugees, Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders, asylees, parolees, and other displaced persons. As part of the launch, IRC conducted a survey of its US staff. Of the 46 respondents who self-identified as a former refugee, 91% indicated the reason they would join Refugee Voices is to “give back,” and nearly 75% indicated interest in sharing their story. Ten launch events around the country gathered further feedback from former refugees about the initiative. IRC continues to develop programming in response to this feedback, local and national engagements, and an Advisory Committee comprised of former refugees. Aside from training in effective storytelling and cultivating local leadership, a recurring theme is a desire to help other newcomers navigate their new communities.

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

In Abilene, Texas, IRC has been resettling refugees since 2004; since then, over 150 clients have purchased a home, and 11 have started their own business. In FY18, the office resettled 116 individuals, and over 100 community volunteers and interns helped to welcome refugees in 2018. IRC has been working in Salt Lake City, Utah for over 25 years, resettling 257 in just the last year. Since 1994, IRC and community partners have welcomed over 11,500 refugees and served thousands more through innovative programs designed to empower new arrivals to prosper and create stable families as they integrate into the community. In 2018, the office helped over 500 refugees become US Citizens and helped hundreds more to build assets, purchase homes, and start small businesses—all made possible with the help of over 2,000 volunteers and interns a year. Both communities have strong engagement from the host community, a thriving network of refugee leaders, and supportive environments for integration.

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

IRC Abilene has experience and an infrastructure for mentorship programs, including a family mentorship program that pairs refugees with US-born mentors and a newer youth mentorship program focused on out-of-school youth. Also, in 2018, the office launched a refugee leadership development program, LEAD, that equips former refugees with the knowledge and connections to further contribute to Abilene and serve others in the refugee community. IRC Salt Lake City also has a vibrant family mentorship program that would serve as a strong foundation for testing this innovation. Annually, the office matches 50 family mentors offering assistance and friendship to newly arrived refugees. The community has an active Ethnic Community Based Organization (ECBO) network that would be a strong asset for a peer mentorship model and a growing network of former refugees who are seeking opportunities to give back to other refugees through education, training, and mentorship.

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

The primary project implementation team will include the leadership and staff of the two site locations, the support of IRC’s national community engagement focal point, and the input of the Refugee Voices Advisory Committee. The Committee is a group that convenes monthly to exchange ideas, give feedback on the Refugee Voices initiative, and help shape its direction. The teams will also be able to collaborate with IRC colleagues who have expertise in volunteer management and evaluation. Locally, IRC will work with its pre-established relationships with local refugee leaders such as faith leaders, business leaders, ECBO leaders, and other community members to implement the project. Additionally, IRC will explore whether to create our own platform and internal system for assessing mentorship interest and making connections or to find a third-party platform to adapt for this purpose.

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

  • Platform: Creating a community or market that facilitates interaction between users and resources

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Prototype: We have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing the idea.

Group or Organization Name

International Rescue Committee (IRC)

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

Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, the IRC offers lifesaving care and life-changing assistance to refugees forced to flee from war or disaster. At work today in 40 countries and 24 U.S. cities, we restore safety, dignity, and hope to millions who are uprooted. In the US, the IRC is the first connection for many refugees fleeing conflict. Through case management, employment, youth, and cultural integration programming, the IRC’s local offices assist refugees to understand their new home, become self-sufficient, and connect with their new communities. All of the IRC’s U.S. offices work to build stronger host communities to integrate refugees into all aspects of society. Services offered at the IRC’s 24 local offices align with each office’s local strategic action plan with defined outcomes in mind. These plans take the needs of the local refugee population, as well as the needs of the community at large, into consideration to build stronger, more resilient communities.

Website URL:

Type of submitter

  • We are a registered Non-Profit Organization

Organization Headquarters: Country

United States

Organization Headquarters: City / State

New York City, NY

In preparation for expert feedback: What are three unanswered questions or challenges that you could use support on in these categories? These questions will be answered directly by experts matched specifically to your idea. (600 characters)

1. In measuring the impact of these mentorship and peer network pairings for mentors/mentees, comparing the in-person vs. online experience, and comparing a peer mentorship model vs. a more traditional mentorship between refugees and the receiving community; how do we achieve our evaluation goals in a realistic and light touch way while still capturing the data? 2. How can we best find or create and manage a low-cost tech platform for virtual mentorship and peer network interactions? 3. How do we create mentorship pairings that span cultures while still considering language differences?

Did you use the resources offered during the Improve Phase (mentorship, expert feedback, community research)? (2000 characters)

We appreciated the opportunity to connect with our mentor and submit questions for experts. For community research, we created an online survey, collecting feedback from 18 individuals. It was encouraging to hear our mentor’s affirmation for the concept, especially as someone who recently migrated. He asked thoughtful, probing questions that helped us think through some areas of our proposal that needed to be more clearly articulated. Pavel reinforced that mentorship would help newcomers celebrate small victories along their journey to starting new lives. We asked our assigned experts how to measure mentorship impact and form pairings. We received great feedback from two experts who encouraged us to think through some more informal feedback mechanisms like a brief check-in. The experts also provided insight into the potential option for virtual mentorship and pairings. We were especially eager to get input from other individuals with lived experience and potential participants through our community research. We designed an online survey that was locally distributed in Abilene and Salt Lake City and also nationally to our Advisory Committee. Survey themes included 1) what would be helpful to hear from someone who’s already resettled; 2) mentorship topics; 3) ideal time after arrival for mentorship; 4) anticipated challenges; and 5) in-person vs. online engagement. We were pleased to get robust feedback from 18 respondents, and this input will be invaluable in guiding the implementation of our idea should it receive funding. The feedback confirmed that there would be mutually beneficial value in a program like this.

In what ways would potential BridgeBuilder funds allow you to pursue your idea that other funding opportunities have not? (1000 characters)

Other funding opportunities have only supported existing mentorship programs between receiving communities and refugee arrivals. BridgeBuilder funds would be the first to support our testing of this peer mentorship and network model which draws upon the strengths and expertise of former refugees themselves. Additionally, previous funding support sought for Refugee Voices has focused on the interest areas of telling one’s story, advocacy, and civic engagement; whereas this opportunity would allow us the chance to develop another meaningful way for former refugees to give back to refugees newer to the US—a way that is more comfortable and aligned with the interests of those individuals who may not be as interested in a public-facing role.

What aspects or proportion of the overall idea would potential BridgeBuilder funds primarily support? (1000 characters)

Potential BridgeBuilder funds would primarily support program staff at each project site in their development of program materials, recruitment and matching of mentors and mentees, mentor training, questionnaire evaluations, and other project support as needed—such as regular check-in calls with mentors and mentees. Program implementation costs include the design and printing of program materials, mentor background checks, incentives for participants, information sessions and events, and use of a tech platform for virtual sessions. These funds would also cover the necessary travel costs when learnings are shared between the two local offices and programs are monitored by national-level staff. Finally, these funds could also help facilitate limited support from national technical staff and further the development of the Refugee Voices Advisory Committee. The funds could support the Committee in its national leadership for the Refugee Voices program.

What are the key steps or activities for your idea for implementation in the next 1-3 years? (1000 characters)

Over 12-18 mo., we would first hire staff at each project site and adapt existing mentorship training materials. Seeking input from former refugees and collecting feedback from sites, we’d define mentor roles, ensuring materials are culturally appropriate through iterative refinement. We must also choose the tech platforms for virtual connection based on the accessibility to users. Then, focusing on existing channels, we’d advertise the idea via various channels including e-newsletters, social media, flyers, outreach and presentations, refugee-led faith-based/civic organizations, etc. Next, we’d recruit mentors and identify where they could support while recruiting mentees and identifying needs. After training mentors and forming pairs, we’d follow researched best practices to support with regular check-ins. Lastly, we’d evaluate the experience and recognize individuals for participation while also continuing to nationally develop the initiative.

What will community-level impact look like over the timeframe of your idea? How will you determine whether or not you have achieved that impact? And what outstanding questions do you still have? (1000 characters)

This mutually benefits mentors, mentees, and the welcoming community. For mentors, the value of sharing one’s own past obstacles with someone now in their shoes can’t be understated. As one community respondent put it, "I've been there, and I'm here now. You will make it." Another survey respondent explained, “For mentors, this is an opportunity to build welcoming communities and give back to people facing similar circumstances.” This individual also described the benefit of navigating “nuances and dynamics of American culture and communities and additional support with concrete things” beyond just the core services of learning English or finding a job. Better connected and involved community members is a win-win for everyone. If each member contributes and engages to their full potential, all benefit. We will measure with continued feedback surveys and conversations with mentors/mentees and community leaders.

Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of roles and responsibilities for each entity). (1000 characters)

Mentor coordinators at Salt Lake City and Abilene offices will recruit, train, and match mentors with the support and supervision of other local staff and leadership (volunteer coordinators, community engagement coordinators, and local Directors). Both sites, and the initiative overall, will receive technical assistance and monitoring from the national Community Engagement Associate Director, situated at IRC headquarters. The Refugee Voices Advisory Committee will continue to provide leadership, input, and guidance to the initiative. Additional support or technical staff will be consulted as needed.

Lastly, how did you apply new learnings to your idea? (1000 characters)

Experts reinforced the value of informal feedback/evaluation such as check-ins. Our focus shifted to in-person engagement, relationship-building, and everyday platforms for virtual interaction. Same-language pairings may seem logical, but experts encouraged creating opportunity for participants to convene as a cohort. Our mentor encouraged us to raise program awareness with existing infrastructure (IRC’s website and communications platforms). For virtual interactions, we should prioritize accessible platforms like WhatsApp. He also recommended considering characteristics of potential mentors beyond language/culture or interests e.g., the ability to coach or see oneself in another’s shoes. Some feedback themes from our community included the ideal time post-arrival before participating, expectations, and boundary setting.We also discovered in-person likely to be more effective than online mentorship, although virtual mentorship was still positive to some.

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Attachments (3)

Effective Practices for Mentoring.pdf

Researched best practices for training mentors, forming effective matches, supporting mentorship relationships, etc.

IRC SLC 25 Years.mp4

IRC celebrating 25 years of welcome in Salt Lake City

Evidence Summary - Social Bonds and Bridges.pdf

What works to help refugees build social bonds and bridges.


Join the conversation:

Photo of geoffrey mosigisi

Hi, Jessica

Great to read your idea.
I can understand that the financial status of the refugees you are dealing with, it is not bad because as I know most refugees lack basic needs, as you have explained you only assist them to get houses, education and personal goals.Then I can see you intend to support their emotional status, to be normal and healthy.why do you decide to train or mentor the refugees, you recruit the mentors who are some how better than the refugees and you will discover that the refugees will certainly tell you what they want,will they listen to you if you don't meet their important needs My question is this why do you put more cash into mentoring,when the refugees know their needs? Let me know please, I will smile if you reply. Thanks



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