“I didn’t have a background in refugee resettlement, I didn’t know anything about nonprofits,” said Whitehill, who had been a stay-at-home mother with a background in digital advertising. “It was sort of like a mama bear instinct of wanting this other mom to have the things to take care of herself and her family. And it was a domino effect from there.”
The first dominoes were other refugee families who had recently arrived in Southern California. Whitehill began contacting aid organizations, finding out what the families needed, and bringing items to help transform sparsely-furnished starter apartments into homes.
Refugee organizations then started contacting her about additional families, and soon the workload became too much for Whitehill to handle on her own. So she set up a nonprofit that posts photos, backstories, and lists of items newly-arrived families need. Anyone in the country — or the world — can donate directly to the families by clicking on their wish list and purchasing what they need via Amazon. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)
Today, the organization, Miry’s List, employs six paid staff members and two dozen volunteers who have so far helped 272 families — over 1,500 people around the country — receive shoes, clothes, textbooks, kitchen supplies, diapers and the like. They use social media to get the lists out and promote the lists, which at this point amount to about $1,000 a day in purchases.
Donors like the personal nature of the transaction: Instead of giving to a huge organization that’s sending it to camps overseas, they can know exactly who will be using their gift. “Our wish list gives mainstream America the ability, in the most simple way, to send a ‘Welcome to America’ gift directly to the door of a refugee family,” Whitehill said.
Likewise, the recipient knows there is a person behind the donation. “When they open their door and there’s a mountain of Amazon boxes, the families know that each box represents a person that has chosen to send them a gift because they think they’re important,” Whitehill said.
The list enrolls around 15 to 18 new families a week. Most are from Syria and Afghanistan, along with a handful of other countries. The majority live in California, and Whitehill tries to personally visit as many as she can. But the list has started to branch out far beyond her local area, to Oregon, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Virginia.
In Woodbridge, Va., a 43-year-old refugee from Afghanistan named Mohammad sat recently in a two-bedroom apartment with his pregnant wife and three elementary-school children.
They had arrived in the United States in July, leaving behind their two story house and garden in Kabul after Mohammad’s work for aid agencies had become too dangerous. When they first moved into the utilitarian apartment, his wife had looked at the empty rooms and burst into tears.
“There was nothing, and that was one of the things that killed her emotionally,” said Mohammad, who didn’t want his last name used because he did not want people in the Afghan community to know about his situation. A friend brought over a used mattress that had been sitting outside for a couple of months, but the family was leery of sleeping on it.
A few days later he learned about Miry’s List from an Afghan colleague who was working for the organization.
“After some days the new things started coming to the door for us,” he said. Beds and mattresses, school bags and stationery, blankets, toilet paper, laundry detergent. Then came a television and iPads for the children. And finally, a sewing machine that his wife had asked for so she could start making what they needed.
A purple children’s bicycle donated through the list leaned against the wall as his two sons, 9 and 6 years old, watched a cartoon on the donated TV. The dining set, couch, and kitchen implements had also come through Miry’s List.
“The good thing I found with Miry’s List was the initial and very quick support,” said Mohammad, who works now at a nonprofit that helps refugees. “This is important to people who are coming with some of their dreams to this country and they are hopeless.”
Resettling after being a refugee has several phases, each with its own set of needs, Whitehill learned. “Visiting a family who has been here two days, they’re confused, they’re jet-lagged, they’re worried, they’re homesick,” she said. “That’s going to be a different vibe than a family that’s been here three months or six months or 12 months.”
Many come from years of living in camps, where “you have to stand in line, be quiet, take what you’re given, and you don’t have the opportunity or the luxury to make decisions for yourself,” Whitehill said. “The psychology and the fears of being a refugee don’t necessarily end just because the plane has landed.”
Local resettlement organizations often don’t have the resources to provide families with much material help, said Hasmik Ktoian, assistant director of the refugee resettlement program at the International Institute of Los Angeles, a nonprofit. “We have very tight budgets, helping refugees with whatever we can do providing services and referrals,” she said. “As far as providing personal items, household items, hygiene items, that’s where they go to Miry’s List.”
Each participating family enrolls for two years and updates their wish list periodically. The lists are not limited to bare necessities, especially as families settle in. Along with cooking pots and bath towels, donations include art supplies, textbooks, and musical instruments.
Often, by the end, the families themselves get in on the act, volunteering or getting hired to work for Miry’s List, and spreading the word about it to new arrivals. The organization also holds supper clubs every other month, open to the public, at which new arrival refugee families make the cuisine of their home country; tickets range from $50 to $150 and go toward helping refugees.
The family of Husna Ahmadzai needed everything from furniture to dishes to a microwave oven when they arrived in Orange County, Calif., a year ago. But the key need was a meat grinder.
When that arrived on their doorstep, her mother could finally make the kebabs she was known for. “She said, ‘Now I can cook for you,'” Ahmadzai said.
For Ahmadzai, 20, the organization went beyond charity; it offered her a job. She now works there part time, enrolling families and talking with them about their needs. Recently, she went out with a colleague to deliver some items to a new arrival who had just given birth to a baby boy.
“She was so happy, she was crying,” Ahmadzai said. “She said, ‘Now my baby has a bed.'” Remembering that, she added, “I was crying too.”