What I Do: Refugee Resettlement

Miry’s List at New Arrival Festival | Image Courtesy of Miry’s List

In this series, Aspire explores inspiring individuals doing interesting work across the world.

Who: Miry Whitehill, Founder and Executive Director, Miry’s List

What: Miry’s List is a community of volunteers that uses crowdsourcing and social media to connect people who want to help new refugee families with urgent needs to start their new lives as our neighbors.  We start by welcoming each family to their home – typically a barely furnished (or completely unfurnished) apartment – and then work together with a translator to create a list of items they need most urgently. The lists are published as Amazon Wishlists and shared at miryslist.org/donate so our generous donors can purchase specific items for specific families, who will receive them directly. Each family has unique needs, including many with small children, elderly grandparents or members with disabilities. It’s our aim to help them all with an open heart and welcoming arms.  We also accept direct donations of furniture and other large items and have a regular schedule of special events.

Why: I didn’t set out to start a nonprofit organization.  When this all began, the thing that I was setting out to do was to deliver a baby bouncer chair to a mom who was about the same age as me whose baby was about the same age as mine. She was from Syria and she had just moved to L.A. with her family, the baby, her husband and five-year-old twin girls. I went to their apartment with this bouncer chair. While there, I noticed that even after three weeks, there were some very obvious gaps in just their household essentials. I was in the bathroom and I noticed they didn’t have towels. In the kitchen, I noticed there weren’t any garbage bags. This was the beginning of a domino effect that led first to wanting to help that one family with all of the items [besides the bouncer chair] that they needed to turn that very bare apartment into a functional home for their family. That led me to doing a lot of research about the resettlement system in America. I had this big question after meeting this one family: is their situation an example of a family who fell through the cracks? Or is their situation illustrating what the system does?

First, I just turned to Google. I searched Syria resettlement L.A. I started learning about how the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement is set up and the agencies that are licensed by the State Department to resettle refugees in America. I learned about what the law and the system provide. I learned about the massive gaps in the system — a system that is very underfunded and broken in a lot of ways. It’s just not designed to do a lot of the things that families need in terms of community support, nurturing and rehumanizing them after a very difficult, multiple year experience. It started with that first family. It was kind of a discovery and then I couldn’t unknow what I knew.  That led to meeting another family, then two more, then six more. By the end of that first year, 2016, we served 40 families’ ‘Wish Lists,’ filling their home and giving them a sense of community.  The average family in the program, their resettlement is 4 ½ years from the time they left their home until they arrive in their destination.

When: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We enroll about five families per week in our program. We are 8 paid employees at Miry’s List, five of whom are graduates of our program. In addition to those 8 staff members, we have about 12 full and part time volunteers doing really big jobs like finance and lawyering. There’s so much that goes into keeping the organization growing and keeping up with demand. All of our family services team are paid staff who are graduates of our program. So all of them, the people who are on our front lines, are making sure that our families are getting a warm welcome and are receiving that warm welcome through the eyes of somebody who’s just a little bit ahead of the game than them. And I’m talking like a year ahead of the game, not thirty years. We’ve found a lot sustainability in that model and also mutual helping and healing that comes through when someone who has been in the position of needing to be the recipient of charity suddenly gets to be the giver of help and hope. It’s very rehabilitating.

How [Funding]: Bit by bit. Miry’s list is made up of amazing, amazing people who really, really want to help families who are resettling in America have a positive experience in their arrival here. The vast majority of our funding comes from individual donors, some of whom have personal immigration or family migration stories that have drawn them to this specific cause. A lot of them don’t. A lot of them are parents of young kids who can relate to the day to day burdens of normal child keeping and human rearing. The vast majority of Miry’s list and our community are women aged 25-54. I don’t say that as ‘Oh, men don’t care.’ I’m just saying that women, and specifically moms, have been the ones demonstrating the renegade spirit of welcoming our new neighbors and that really has trickled into the rest of our neighborhoods, where their husbands or partners or kids or uncles or aunts are also hearing, ‘Oh there’s a way, there’s something we can do to help.’

Refugee resettlement in this country is designed deliberately to keep families isolated. It’s with the idea that these families should become independent as fast as possible but from what I’ve seen and from what I’ve learned after meeting about 1500 people who have resettled in America as refugees in the past twenty years, is that in the beginning when you’re surviving and you don’t know anyone and you don’t speak the language,  independence is called isolation. Being alone does not help. What helps is intervention and community integration, like your neighbor popping over with dinner – that’s the thing that unlocks so much that it really takes to get to the next step after you arrive. The reality is for these families that until they feel safe and loved, they are just not going to able to acclimate to this new life. You can go around this country for the next ten years talking to people who have resettled here as refugees and if they resettled last year or 30 years ago or 40 years ago, every single one of them will be able to tell you about the people who have helped.  That’s what we are offering to people with Miry’s List. We want to make it easy and enjoyable for people to help families who are resettling and we see a lot of sustainability in that model.

How: Our program is divided into three pillars, chronologically: Survive, Hive and Thrive. What we have learned from families is that the resettlement experience changes and in different phases of resettlement, your needs are going to be different.

In the first phase, Survive, what we consider survive is basically the first 30 days in the country or until the family is in their permanent residence. So the program that we offer in survive is meal delivery in a motel room or temporary housing. These families coming to America are getting stuck in a hotel room for two or three weeks while their case worker finds them an apartment, it’s how the system is designed. It’s terribly designed because a cold, expensive hotel room is the worst place for a resettling family to spend most of their time.  One of our programs, ‘Welcome Home’ is about matching incoming families with people who have empty guest houses and guest rooms in their homes. That is something that’s been really successful.  What we’ve seen is that families who are arriving to a place where they are really wanted — we’re like a foster program for resettling families — there is just so much more energy when the families are then moved into permanent housing. A lot of times they already have their driver’s license because their hosts have helped them get it, the kids have received their vaccinations, the kids are enrolled in school. That’s what we want. We don’t want mom, dad and nine little kids huddled in a hotel room in Glendale for three weeks. How are they supposed to feel part of the community? That’s not warm and inviting.

The next phase, Hive is about surrounding the family with the things, people and services that they need to feel safe.  Once the family’s moved into their home, we want to make sure that they have the things in their homes that they need. And that’s when we enroll them in a ‘Wish List’ that we promote to our long list of donors. Each item purchased from their ‘Wish List’ is coming from somebody who decided to send in that gift. Most of our donors choose to write a gift message to let the families know who they are and why they are sending them that gift. Like a baby registry or wedding registry, the donor gets to pick the item. There’s a lot of intention around a lot of these purchases.  

For example, Wish List shopper and host of L.A.’s KCRW Good Food radio show, Evan Kleiman [who is now an advisor for Miry’s List] came up to me at one of our events and said, ‘Excuse me Miry, can I talk to you? Having never met her before, I knew exactly who she was from the sound of her voice, I said, ‘Evan Kleiman, I can’t believe I’m meeting you.’ She’s such a celebrity. She says, ‘I want to tell you about my dirty little secret.’  I said, ‘Ok, what’s your dirty little secret?’ And she says, ‘When I’m feeling down or discouraged or sad about the world, which these days is often, I go to Miry’s List and I go to your family ‘Wish List’ and I find people who have registered for professional grade kitchen appliances and I buy them things like Cuisinarts and meat grinders because I really like to be able to help people who are serious cooks make their comfort food.’

That’s just one example of actually 75,000 people who have gotten involved in Miry’s List in the past 2 1/ 2 years. 75,000 people have shopped our ‘Wish List, come to our events, volunteered with our families, volunteered with our organization. We didn’t exist 2 ½ years ago. That shows you it’s not just about the need, because we know that there are needs of resettling families, of being part of a community support system, but that speaks to the interests of American people who really want to help.

There’s a new program I want to tell you about called Hive. It’s a local program here in L.A. We’re piloting it in L.A. with the intention of creating it as a framework that other cities that want to become more welcoming for refugees can replicate. That program is called, ‘Welcome neighbor.’ If you’re on our website, you’ll see there’s an announcement bar and we just published an update about that program.  It’s been live for a quarter so we did a quarterly update on it. It’s a Los Angeles exclusive program where we partnered with the city and the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and it’s a framework for any neighborhood to become more welcoming for refugees.  So far, we’ve been running this program for 4 months, it’s in partnership with Goldrush Foundation and L.A. City, and we’ve enrolled 11 neighborhoods in LA. There’s 99 neighborhoods in L.A. and our goal was to enroll 10 in our first year and we already enrolled 11 in the first four months. It’s very popular because this is a top 3 issue here in Los Angeles and also nationally. That’s an L.A. program we hope to expand to other cities.

The last phase of our program is called Thrive, and that’s where we want all of our families to end up. What that looks like is once they’ve been through Survive and Hive, all the kids are enrolled in school, all of the parents are learning English and/or working, usually someone in the family is volunteering in some capacity with the other families that are in their neighborhood. That’s a really great way to tell if a family is in Thrive, if they’re asking about wanting to help other families who have come after them. This indicates that they’ve reached that milestone and then we can offer them, it’s almost like an Ambassador Program, paid speaking opportunities where they are able to share their experience of coming to America and about their culture. One of our programs is New Arrival Supper Club. It’s a pop-up dinner series where families cook meals and share their culture through food. We started with one dinner, a backyard Valentines dinner in February 2017, and since then we’ve had 47 more of those. They all sell out, every last one of them.  Our Supper Club ranges from 20 person private dinners in someone’s backyard to 200 person potluck playdates where 7 families cook the food, major big all day things. Most of our events are 50-70 people and one family is doing the cooking.

New Arrival Supper Club is Southern California only. We’ve had events in L.A., Orange County, San Diego and Riverside. More of those in L.A. because that’s where we’re based.  Our Wish List program, on the other hand, is national because it’s based on Amazon and so anywhere that Amazon delivers is our service area. We have 6 families in the D.C.  Metro area because there was an article about Miry’s List on the front page of the Metro section of The Washington Post and suddenly all these Afghan families heard about us and they were calling and asking, “Can we enroll?”  We serve families in Ohio, Washington State, Michigan, Oregon, I would say we have about 10% of our families out of state. Most of our families are here in California. Sacramento is actually our fastest growing market right now.

Image Courtesy of Miry's List

Miry Whitehill with one of the families she has successfully helped resettle | Image courtesy of Miry's List

Where I work: My house, every coffee shop, and my car.  I got a new shed in my backyard – it didn’t exist before Miry’s List – with our inventory in it. That’s where I keep our materials, the donations, stuff for events, marketing materials, recipes, postcards and T- Shirts.  It was necessary [to get the shed]. We don’t have a headquarters or office, we all work remotely. I now work out of a co-working space for women called The Jane Club. I’ve been here about six months since it opened, it’s a coworking space for women and having a designated workspace has been transformative for my day.

Resettlement is hard: They’re not living in one place. I’ll tell you about the Allowate family – they’re kind of a classic case. They’re a Syrian family, mom, dad and five kids. The oldest is 11, the youngest is a 3-week old newborn. During the pregnancy they heard about the violence erupting all around their country and it was getting closer to where they lived in Homs, which is the 3rd largest city in Syria, well it was, it’s no longer, it was basically the equivalent of Chicago in their country. That is one of the countries that really got besieged and most of the neighborhoods there no longer exist.

The Allowat family, when their youngest was 3-weeks-old, they decided they had to leave their home when there was a bomb that had gone off and their uncle was killed. So they went, and this is what most families do, first they stayed within their country. So they moved in with grandma and grandpa and ultimately, grandma and grandpa’s neighborhood became too unsafe so then they walked by foot, which is the only way for families of that size to travel over the border.

They walked to Jordan.  This is a trek that so many Syrian families have to do. It was 11 days for them. 11 days of nonstop walking with five children, including the newborn in her arms. I have 2 babies, they’re not babies anymore, they’re 3 and 6 but when I had just had my first baby, my midwife told me: “Week 1 in the bed. Week 2 around the bed. Week 3 around the house. Week 4 around the block.” Just to put into context what this one mom, the mom in the Allowat family, had to do just 3 weeks postpartum. When they arrived in Jordan, they came into the refugee camp. They registered and got refugee status after about three weeks. They stayed in the camp for a while and then they moved closer to the city. The conditions in refugee camps are not good and the people who stay there usually do it because there are no other options. Able bodied people tend to leave after they receive their refugee status because it’s really unlivable and dangerous and horrific.

A month ago they were in their homes and they had to leave everything. They now live now in the lowest form of poverty. After that refugee status is received, they’re able to apply for resettlement and they’ll apply in multiple countries usually. They won’t pick which country they want to go to unless they have relatives in a country. Then the vetting process, at least for the for U.S., tends to be between 3 and 5 years for Syrian families.  The lucky ones get approved for resettlement in the U.S and Canada. That’s when resettlement occurs.  There’s a whole lot that ends and a whole lot of things that begin at that point. But it’s a long road and it’s not one that is full of choices. It’s really survival and that is not a choice

Shake Up: My life has changed forever now. The impact of Miry’s List for me is transformative as well. I was coming from a place — when I met that first family I was home, every day, with a 5 -month-old baby and a 3 ½ -year – old who was in preschool for 3 hours a day. Most of my day to day was witnessed by people who couldn’t speak, didn’t have language skills. I felt very invisible in my life. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was at the end of my marriage. From meeting these families and helping them to get set up so they can start their lives over, I became the recipient of an extreme amount of gratitude. I needed it. I think I was that depleted.  That really would have been the only thing to pull me out of that.

I was in a very dark mental state.  I was in a marriage that was not a healthy marriage and came to a point when I met that mom and saw that she had problems that were unsolvable for her but things that I could solve with my friends.  This light went on.  I was so excited about a problem that I could solve because I was spending all my time and energy trying to solve problems I could never solved. I could have done that for more than 100 years and I couldn’t fix what I was trying to be able to fix. Meanwhile helping someone get towels in their bathroom, what an amazing way to spend my day. It completely changed not just what I’m doing with my days but how I think and also my kids who have been on front lines of the development of this organization, who themselves have made friends with all these people from all over the world who speak all these different languages. And learning about foods and culture and my oldest, he’s six now, he can tell you every language that they speak in Afghanistan. And he knows how to organize a bin of toys by age and ability. There’s all these things my kids have been exposed to and is now normal for them.”

Refugee connection: Zero, aside from I’m Jewish and there is not a Jewish family that doesn’t have an immigration story. These last 3 years have been a complete shift of my day to day and my expertise and what I’m thinking about every day.  Before I had kids, I worked in the digital advertising industry. I continued working until my oldest was about 1 ½ and then I left full that industry and became a full time mom. I didn’t have any plans. I was not looking for a job when Miry’s List began.

The Trump effect: Honestly, Miry’s list has nothing to do with Trump. The time that Trump became involved was in January 2017 when the first Muslim ban came about and I remember just hearing about this and calling our resettlement agency partners and saying, “what’s going on, what’s happening?” and hearing case workers say all of our cases are indefinitely cancelled. It was terrifying because we had received families until that day, literally that day. And if you remember the first travel ban lasted about 6 hours, 12 hours and then the cases were reopened.

What does that look like for the families we serve? I’ll tell you the story of Moji from Iran, single kid teenager traveling alone from Iran where in his country it’s illegal to be LGBQT. That’s the law, punishable by hanging. He was scheduled to arrive in the U.S. from Turkey, he was waiting in Turkey. When the ban happened, his agency called him and said “Your flight’s been cancelled. Never mind. You’re not coming.” Just two days after that, he gets another call, “See you at the airport in 6 hours. You’re going to America.”  Just think about all of the emotional and mental doors that have to open and close and open and close. This swinging of ups and downs.  He was at the airport six hours later and he got on the plane. He thought he was going to Northern California, but he ends up in Los Angeles. I met him in the motel he was placed at by the case worker. That was about 1 ½ years ago. That was the first time the Trump administration really began to have an effect on our work.

The second Muslim ban lasted about 24 hours before it was overturned by the judge out of Hawaii, I believe. The third Muslim ban was actually quite successful and from that travel ban Syrian resettlement in America basically stopped because of the list of countries. I don’t want to say Syrian resettlement stopped, because it’s not accurate but it slowed significantly.

If you want to look at the numbers around that, the State Department publishes http://www.wrapsnet.org/admissions-and-arrivals every week and you can just see by the country. The last time I checked there were 60 total refugees resettled in the country for the whole year. It basically downsized the entire system, by lowering the annual refugee caps, they also lower the funding that goes to the 9 agencies that are responsible for resettling refugees. It’s similar to the public school system where the funding is based on student attendance. Refugee resettlement funding comes from the number of people received.

So, now how does that continue to affect? When funding goes down, we have structure closures. Just here in Los Angeles, we’ve seen 5 out of our 9 local agencies shut down in the last 2 years. Now taking it one step forward into the future, even when we do have an administration change and eventually a policy change around numbers of refugees accepted in the country, the offices have closed, the infrastructure has already shut down. So, right now is the most important time for needing a community-based infrastructure for supporting resettling refugees because those agencies don’t know if they are even going to be open next month or the month after, so we need to support them as much as possible. That’s a huge part of what we do. The contracting of the very dehumanizing migration experience is supporting the agencies and filling the gaps of those caseworkers so they can focus on things that only they can do and then we can handle the things that really good neighbors can do really, really well.



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