Ana Huna: An Open Letter to My Neighbors on World Refugee Day

In July 2016, my friend Suzanne called me out of the blue and said the most curious thing: I just met a family who moved to LA three weeks ago from Syria. Their 5-month old baby boy is at that age he wants to be upright but he can’t sit up on his own yet. Do you have a baby Jumperoo chair that you could spare?

My youngest, Sabo, was the same age, so I could relate to this mom’s need for a place to put down her baby. Glancing around my living room, I noticed we were absolutely swimming in baby supplies. I had just had my second baby—and between hand-me-downs, borrowing and gifts from friends, our house was geared up. I had a spot to safely put the baby in every room of my house. Even the bathroom had a baby rocker in it, so that I could bathe and Sabo would be comfortable.

But Sabo had just started using his Jumperoo, so I couldn’t give mine away. I’ll ask the moms, I thought, referring to a community of thousands of locals moms in Los Angeles that I was connected to through a Facebook group. We helped each other solve sleeping issues, pooping issues, breastfeeding issues—and we passed along and trade outgrown baby gear to other mamas in need.

One Facebook post and 15 minutes later, I had an offer for a Jumper from a neighbor who I had never met.

That weekend, Suzanne and I went to meet the Syrian family. I brought my neighbor’s Jumperoo; Suzanne brought a box of diapers and a case of wipes. I got there with my eye on the prize—determined to get the Jumper, set it up and get that baby in it. After a few minutes of tinkering around, the Jumperoo was ready for baby.

When I turned around and walked over to the mother, who was holding her adorably chubby baby boy in her arms, and scooped her son away from her, I noticed the hesitation in her eyes. I plopped him into the Jumperoo and slowly stepped away. Like my sons, and every baby taking a spin in new gear, her boy was unsure what he was supposed to do. He waved his hand and accidentally hit a toy. A light flashed. He shifted again. Music played. Then he noticed his toes were touching the floor, and he pushed up on them and bounced. Suddenly, we were all smiling. When he bounced again and started giggling, the room once again followed suit.

I turned to look over at his mom. Her face had changed from unsure and uncomfortable to happy and relieved, and I saw that she looked tired—like, really tired; more tired than me!

Laughing together broke the ice: Mom disappeared into the kitchen to bring refreshments. That afternoon, we sat in the living room and ate cereal and bananas and drank the world’s most delicious tea. Since we didn’t share a language—they spoke Arabic, and we spoke English—all of us engaged in a speechless conversation, smiling, locking eyes, sharing a bite, watching the kids play on the floor. Eventually, the awkwardness of it all started getting to me. I excused myself to the restroom, shut the door behind me, stood over the sink and stared at myself in the mirror.

This is so weird, I thought. I’ve got to get out of here. While I was giving myself a mental pep talk facing the mirror, I noticed in my reflection an empty towel bar. I turned around and stared at it.

Questions filled my mind: Where are their towels? Why is this bathroom so empty? Curiously, I rolled open the glass shower door and peeked in. There was no shampoo. There was no bubble bath. I turned back to the sink and noticed there were no toothbrushes or toothpaste, either. There was no evidence of human life, of family life, in this bathroom.

Suddenly, my feelings of awkwardness were replaced with a sense of urgency. This family needed much more than the Jumperoo. I jumped into action mode.

Back in the living room, I FaceTimed my friend Loai, who I met while living in Tel Aviv years earlier. I asked him to be our Arabic to English interpreter. What do you need? I asked them. Let’s make a list and I’ll help you get the things you need.

They asked only for the most basic items—baby formula, crib mattress, diapers, bread, eggs, milk—before Loai convinced them to be real with me. Eventually, we went room-to-room, cabinet-to-cabinet, drawer-to-drawer and made a list of supplies they needed to turn their empty apartment into a functioning home for a family of five.

I was determined to get that family the things they needed to feel safe and normal. I drove home and posted their list to Facebook.

Later that night, while I wandering around on the plush Occidental College campus in my neighborhood of Eagle Rock with my dogs, I also recorded a video to my Facebook page about the family I’d just met, and the eye-opening experience I’d just had.

The communal act of generosity and outpouring of kindness that came next was amazing. People from all over Los Angeles showed up at my front door with donations at all hours of the day and night. Within two weeks, we had collected everything on their list. We stocked the kitchen with supplies and appliances, put shampoo and body wash in the shower, left toothbrushes and toothpaste on the sink. We filled their closets with blankets and shoes. We passed along toys and school supplies for the girls and formula, wipes and diapers for their son.

Every time I brought supplies to them, I’d bring my kids along, and they’d play together with their new friends—no common language required. And each time I came back to visit them, their house looked a little bit more like one where a family lived. It got messier. It got home-ier.

I didn’t know it at the time, but they were the first Miry’s List family. In the three years since, I’ve had the honor of meeting over 1,800 individuals resettling in the U.S. from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Miry’s List, the non-profit that started with that Facebook post, has now served 320 families.

Tip: If you meet a new arrival family from Syria or Iraq, you can tell them “Ana huna.” It means “I’m here” in Arabic. I’m here for you. I got you. And give them your phone number!

I felt uplifted after we scratched off all of the items on that list. I could not believe how easy and enjoyable it was to help this family so significantly. But the experience also had me confused. Did this family fall through the cracks? Is this a common problem for resettling families?

I typed “Syrian refugee assistance Los Angeles” into Google. I called non-profits and faith-based organizations. I networked with professionals and volunteers working with resettling families. I spoke with caseworkers at resettlement agencies in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego.

I discovered that the situation I had found that family in is the system working. I learned that refugee resettlement in the U.S. is handled by nine licensed nonprofit agencies and hundreds of local affiliate agencies that are regulated by and receive funding from the federal government. I learned that they provide support for families for only the first 90 days—helping them find permanent housing, sign up for public benefit programs like food stamps and healthcare, get kids vaccinated and enrolled in school and apply for Social Security cards and other documents. I learned that all of the refugee services professionals I spoke to were over capacity—managing caseloads between 30 and 300.

I was sad, frustrated and angry—and I was motivated and energized. I began doing all I could to help more families.

First it was one family a month, then two families a month, then three families at once. While I was helping the sixth family, I realized dropping off items in person to family’s homes wasn’t sustainable. I’m just one person. I have two kids. Sure, I can do drop-offs for six families, but what about 60? What about 600?

I lay in bed that night with these questions racing through my head. The next morning, the answer was waiting for me at the front door—an Amazon diaper delivery. We started using Amazon wishlists to send supplies directly to families homes, which allowed them to ask for anything and everything and keep their addresses private.

The tenth family we helped was from Syria: a mom, dad and five kids ages four to 12. They were sleeping on the floor. They had no beds and no light bulbs. I posted their list at 11 p.m., and over 90 items were purchased by anonymous strangers from all over the country while I slept.

Soon, I was waking up every morning to texts from our families—pictures of kids on bikes and babies in beds; smiling and gratitude emojis and hearts; invitations for lunch, poems and prayers. Nearly every single morning since then, I’ve woken up to the same reminders—markers of gratitude, friendship and service that fill me with pride for what our crew of renegade problem-solvers accomplishes each day.

Today, Miry’s List enrolls five new families per week. We have a staff of eight employees, mostly folks who are previous recipients of our program; 15 part- and full-time volunteers who keep the magic machine growing; and a network of more than 100 volunteer list-makers all over the world who are personal shoppers for new arrival families.

Our website is a crowdsourcing platform that connects people who want to help with new arrival families whose needs are not met by the resettlement agencies, and a home base for the shoppable Amazon wishlists that generous donors click through to welcome new families to America. Gifts are sent directly to the doors of our family’s new homes in America; many include a loving gift message.

Our families are new here. Some are scared, worried or homesick. They need to know that their new neighbors have their backs, that they are safe, that they are welcome. When they open their door to a mountain of Amazon boxes waiting for them, they’re more certain of it.

Each of those boxes is someone saying: Ana Huna. I’m here. Each box has a value far beyond the “thing” inside it. Those boxes expand our families’ community and social network and give them access to the welcoming neighbors and families around them. Our families feel the love.

We want to create a more welcoming and inclusive country. We want to demonstrate for the entire world just how welcoming we can be. We want to build a culture that sees new arrival families as neighbors, not as refugees. We want to foster a safe and encouraging culture for new arrival families to share life experiences and heal trauma—not through compartmentalizing, but through sharing.

We have lofty plans to make that possible.

By the end of 2019, we plan to increase the number of connections made between resettling refugee families and their American neighbors to proactively counteract the effects of systematic marginalization that resettling refugees experience in migration; advance social and economic mobility for new arrival refugees in Southern California by increasing their access to business opportunities in their communities; and launch a classroom program to reduce stigma around resettlement.

­By 2020, we want to develop two engaging and exciting new ways for longtime U.S. residents to get involved in welcoming resettling refugees families, and we want to develop a replicable framework any city can adopt to become more welcoming and supportive for resettling families.

In three years, Miry’s List turned into a designation for anyone with access to the Internet the ability to send a welcome gift directly to the door of a new arrival family. We’ve stood beside our families for life-changing events—births, celebrations, loss, frightening medical diagnoses—and simple but important moments, like a family’s first July 4th or Thanksgiving in the U.S. There is no type of person who supports our organization. All types of people care about the welfare and safety of families, and we’re connecting communities across race, gender and creed.

The resettlement system is designed to keep people alive, but it does not and can not address what people need to feel alive—their unique, human, psychological and social needs. Miry’s List is designed to give families access to the things, people and services they need to feel safe so they can thrive in their new communities. It’s a customized offering based on what each family tells us they need.

We’ve come into an industry that hasn’t changed or innovated since it’s creation after World War II and turned it on its head. We don’t do things because that’s the way it’s done. We question things, we upgrade and optimize them. Even the language we use is different: We don’t call our families refugees, because a refugee is someone seeking refuge; instead, our families are new arrivals, our new neighbors.

When I talk about sharing experiences and moments with our newest neighbors, I’m describing a long tradition of welcoming the stranger. This tradition can only be continued if we know what people’s needs are and how we can fill them. We can only learn those things if we ask.

My experience shows that the difference between a refugee and a new arrival neighbor is the ability to make decisions. When we curate these lists, we ask simple questions. What do you need to feel safe? What do you like? What do you want?

I’m not in the business of bringing stuff to people’s homes and assuming that they need what I need to get rid of. Instead, our organization is designed to be custom curation—not only at the family level, but for each individual in the family. There is power for parents in picking out what kind of pots and pans they want in their kitchen, in the moment a child gets to decide if he wants dinosaurs or trucks on his bedsheets.

When my neighbor struggles, it’s not their problem. It’s our entire neighborhood’s problem. I’ve learned what’s possible when a group of powerful people with a mission to help commit themselves to a crazy idea. There is no limit to what we can do together. Together we are amazing.

WATCH: The 2019 Miry’s List World Refugee Day Awards at The Jane Club

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Miry Whitehill is the Founder and Executive Director of Miry's List. Before starting Miry's List in July 2016, she was a stay-at-home mom and community activist with 10 years experience in digital marketing. She speaks fluent Hebrew and is learning Arabic in the car on an app with her sons. Miry can typically be found digging in the garden with her sons, Reuben and Sabo, or walking around Occidental College with her dog, Leroy.