After nearly two years on the move, Ajapwoh Sergeo found himself in October in an unfamiliar city possessing little more than his passport from Cameroon. Having so far walked through bandit-filled jungles and ridden buses across Central America, his journey of thousands of miles ends, as it has for more than 3,000 other refugees and asylum seekers like him, with one final unexpected step: frequent flier miles.
The miles are courtesy of a small, mostly volunteer organization, Miles4Migrants, that collects donated airline miles, credit card points and cash to help migrants reach their destination or reunite with family members as the number of displaced people in the world continues to soar even with the coronavirus pandemic closing borders. According to the United Nations, there are roughly 1.4 million people in need of resettlement.
“We help those fleeing war, persecution, natural disasters, and [who] have legal permission to travel but cannot afford airlines,” said Seth Stanton, who co-founded Miles4Migrants in 2016 with two acquaintances, Nick Ruiz and Andy Freedman.
Launched after Stanton, an optician by day, and his partners conceived the idea in a Reddit travel points discussion group, the organization first helped a refugee fly his family from Syria to Belgium to join him after two years apart. This trial run convinced the trio that their idea could work. It has since grown from an international focus to include assistance for migrants along the southern border of the United States. So far, the Miles4Migrants program has flown more than 3,335 individuals from 63 countries and reunited 1,538 families while using more than 57 million miles and credit card points. Cash donations help pay for taxes, ticket fees and fuel surcharges.
The organization also relies on a network of partners — part of a global patchwork of groups providing legal advice, shelter, clothes, cellphones and other essentials to some of the world’s roughly 80 million forcibly displaced people — to identify and vet individuals in need. Miles4Migrants’ five employees, who are funded by grants, and a team of volunteers then arrange flights and coordinate logistics such as travel to and from airports.
“We work entirely through our partners, who handle documentation and other paperwork and ensure the refugees and asylum seekers are financially in need,” Stanton said, adding that most major airlines and mileage programs work with them. A few airlines do not, however, as refugee and immigration issues have become increasingly politicized in recent years. “We are not a political organization,” he stressed. “Everybody we fly has a legal right to. When we get a case, our role is simply to match them with a mileage pledge.”
Ajapwoh, a photographer, received his miles after fleeing arrest and torture for documenting attacks on the English-speaking minority in his native Cameroon. With his family and girlfriend still in Cameroon, he made his way alone to South America by plane, then after a detour to Ecuador, which has low entry requirements, walked from Colombia through the Darien Gap, a notoriously lawless jungle, and into Panama. “It was like [the television show] ‘Survivor,’ ” Ajapwoh said of his trek.
“We walked through the jungle, and people charge you to let you pass. A lot of people died or went missing. It can take 10 days, two weeks, one month. … On the trail, you can get turned around a lot.”
Having made it to Panama, Ajapwoh then traveled on buses north to Tijuana to request asylum in the United States, as he is legally allowed to do at a port of entry. After a four-month wait in Mexico because of tight immigration controls under the Trump administration, which also closed the border in March after the coronavirus outbreak, he received his release from a detention facility in October. A van then dropped him off unceremoniously late at night in San Diego. His savings by now tapped out, the Minority Humanitarian Foundation, a small nonprofit that had been assisting him with housing and other aid during his time in Mexico, put him in touch with Miles4Migrants.
Across the world in Afghanistan, Mir Enayatullah Mosawi had worked for a construction company assisting the American military but felt unsafe as unrest grew in the country. He decided to leave in 2015, and after a lengthy screening process, he received a special immigration visa in 2019 for Afghans who worked for or with the U.S. government. But with his wife eight months pregnant, he wrote in an email, “it was really impossible for us to wait an additional two to three months for the International Organization for Migration to process our docs and schedule our travel arrangement from Afghanistan to the U.S.A.” Instead, Mosawi learned of Miles4Migrants through a nonprofit organization, Keeping Our Promise, that helps Afghan, Iraqi and Kurdish allies with resettlement.
“KOP introduced me to Seth [Stanton], and after contacting Miles4Migrants they have agreed to cooperate with my travel arrangement and tickets,” Mosawi said, now living in Rochester, N.Y., with his wife and daughter and working as an electrician. “I was in direct contact with Seth during my journey, I told him it is my first time that I’m leaving my country and he knew all the challenges that I had ahead. Miles4Migrants was very supportive and acted in a timely manner and helped us in the moment that we needed help the most.”
Ashley Gordoa, now working in the hospitality industry in New York, is also among those grateful for Miles4Migrants’ support. After fleeing Mexico because of harassment as a transgender individual, Gordoa, who goes by the non-binary pronouns they/them, requested asylum at the border in San Diego. After they were released from a detention facility, they found themselves literally at the end of the line, a trolley stop in the San Ysidro neighborhood, and a long way from their immigration sponsor in New York. From there, a nonprofit helped them find temporary shelter and put them in touch with Miles4Migrants. “If it wasn’t for them giving me the ticket to fly from San Diego to New York, I don’t know what I would have done, because I didn’t have anyone else helping me,” Gordoa said.
Such stories compelled Colm Atkins, a researcher at Rutgers University who learned about Miles4Migrants on social media, to donate his miles to the program in the fall. He shared his donation on Twitter, a post that went viral and helped generate pledges worth about 5 million miles for Miles4Migrants. (A typical domestic flight within the United States requires a donation of about 12,000 to 15,000 miles for one person, while international flights can require up to 42,500 miles for a single person.)
“Obviously, travel isn’t an option right now, so it was a great way to clear the account and cancel the Southwest Airlines credit card I had and make some use of them,” Atkins said. “I was able to help one person get from U.S. [immigration] detention to their family so far, and have enough miles for one more domestic flight, so I’m excited to see who else they match me with.”
Stanton expects the demand to be there once the pandemic and related travel restrictions lift. Miles4Migrants has seen its number of flight requests slowly rebound since quarantines began in March of last year, returning to closer to the pre-coronavirus average of about 200 flight requests a month. But this too could change as the virus continues to spread and political winds shift.
“We always have a need and expect to see requests for more flights when the pandemic eases,” Stanton said, adding that the organization anticipates that demand for flights and related mileage pledges will rise during the Biden administration because of changes in immigration policy after historically low numbers of asylum seekers and refugees were allowed entry under President Trump. “We must be ready to meet a surge in demand when that happens.”
Ajapwoh is now in Massachusetts and seeing snow for the first time as he waits for his asylum case to be heard. “When you have been traveling a long way, sometimes more than a year, and you meet some people who understand what you are going through and are fighting for you, you are so grateful,” he said. “It gives you hope things will get better soon.”
Biggar is a writer based in D.C. Find him on Instagram: @hughbiggar.