The family — a mom, dad, and two one-year-old twins — were living like many recent refugees to the US. They had left in a rush on one of the last flights out of Afghanistan and brought very little with them, not even a change of clothes. Their apartment in northern Virginia was empty, and the family was forced to sleep together on the floor.
When Whitehill spoke to the father, he made one thing clear: He and his wife could handle the discomfort. Their kids were the ones that needed help first.
What struck Whitehill wasn’t the family’s situation, which she noted is common among recent refugees in the US. It was the fact that the father thought he would need to choose.
“Parents who come here from countries like Afghanistan, they are doing that (sacrifice) for their children’s future, and that’s something that every parent in the US can relate to,” Whitehill told CNN. “I feel so honored to be able just to speak to these people.”
Immediately after speaking to the dad, Whitehill and her organization, Miry’s List, got to work. They sent the family cribs, beds, mattresses and warm coats. The father later told her it was the first good night’s sleep the family had in months.
Whitehill is the founder and executive director of Miry’s List, an organization dedicated to helping refugees settle in the US. Miry’s List runs a 12-month program for recent refugee families, enrolling 25 families per month. Families in the program receive immediate aid — things like mattresses, backpacks and toiletries — as well as access to English classes, tutors and other long-term necessities.
The organization, based in Los Angeles, has a staff of 15 people and has helped more than 600 families in its five years of existence. But its beginnings were much humbler.
A family from Syria changed her life
Whitehill launched Miry’s List in 2016 after a friend told her about a new family from Syria who had recently come to the US. The friend’s church was sponsoring the family, but needed help locating a secondhand Jumperoo — a bouncer toy for toddlers that can cost more than $100 — for their children.
Whitehill got to work, locating a used bouncer on Facebook in about an hour. Days later, she dropped the bouncer off with the family — a mother and father, two twin daughters and a little baby.
When Whitehill met them, the family had been living in their apartment for three weeks. But Whitehill noticed the gaps: no towels, a missing crib mattress, and so on. It was clear the family needed more than just a Jumperoo.
“Everything about my life has changed since the day I met that first family and began learning about what life was like for people who come to the US as refugees,” Whitehill said.
Whitehill had thought that most refugees’ basic necessities would be provided by the government. But meeting this family, she realized she was wrong.
“I was like, ‘I have to help these people,'” she said.
So she did. With the help of a friend who spoke Arabic, Whitehill asked the family what they needed, and they named things like infant formula, diapers and other basics. Using Facebook as an organizing tool, Whitehill managed to completely stock their apartment in a week, with friends and neighbors donating blankets, shoes, toys, school supplies and other items.
For Whitehill, seeing how little refugees receive upon arriving in the US was eye-opening. It also motivated her, so she began to meet with more refugee families to determine their needs and crowdsource donations.
As her initiative picked up steam, it turned into Miry’s List.
It’s the most fulfilling job she’s ever had
Before that fateful Jumperoo, Whitehill worked in advertising, selling digital media space for a tech company. But in 2016 she was taking a break, choosing instead to stay home with her two young children, then just three-and-a-half and five months.
In her previous line of work, Whitehill told CNN she often saw companies that didn’t support their employees’ families. It’s not lost on her that familial support is at the heart of what she does today.
“I went from being in sales for products that other people built, working at companies that didn’t support even their own employees’ families, to building a team and creating solutions for people that provide real day-to-day help for families in need,” Whitehill said.
“I have never been more motivated or fulfilled by a job than I am in my role at Miry’s List.”
Her organization has now helped hundreds of people. But her work is not easy.
For starters, Whitehill’s days are jam-packed. With two sons, she’s up early — making breakfast, packing lunches, and walking them to school. After coffee, she spends the rest of the morning and afternoon taking Zoom meetings from her home office with staff, volunteers, board members and donors.
Two days every week, Miry’s List volunteers gather at her home to pack new family welcome kits in her garage.
In the afternoon, after picking up her kids from school, it’s family time. They’ll go to a park or go straight home and get started on homework. They’ll watch “The Simpsons” and make dinner — sometimes sitting picnic-style on the living room floor, playing poker.
After her kids’ bedtime Whitehill is often back at her desk for at least another hour, making calls to the newest families in the program and learning about their needs.
Her work, fueled by online fundraisers and a network of donors, also is expensive.
Since August 30, the organization has spent more than $97,000 buying beds, mattresses, pillows, utensils, electric kettles and other items “to make life comfortable and households functional,” Whitehill said.
In the last two months, all the families that have enrolled in the program — typically a set of parents with multiple young kids — have been from Afghanistan, Whitehill said. Many left their country and arrived in the US with little physical or mental preparation, she said.
“We are asking a lot of (the) families who are resettling here. We’re asking them to integrate into our society, and that’s not something that happens after one day,” she said. “That’s a huge learning experience that requires people to basically … become a member of our society while they are carrying the very heavy grief that it takes to leave their home country.”
Demand for Miry’s List’s services has never been higher
Last year former President Donald Trump capped the number of refugees allowed into the US at 15,000 for fiscal year 2021 — a historic low — and reduced funding for refugee resettlement. As a result, around 100 resettlement offices were forced to close during his tenure, according to a Refugee Council USA report — about a third of offices nationwide.
Although President Joe Biden committed to raising the refugee limit to 62,500 people for the remainder of the fiscal year that ended in September, the US only resettled about 11,400. (Biden set an admissions goal of 125,000 for fiscal year 2022.)
Even so, demand for Miry’s List’s services has never been greater, Whitehill said, especially given the events of the last few months in Afghanistan.
As the Taliban took over the country in August, more than 124,000 Afghans were evacuated to the US. More than 55,000 Afghan refugees — about 44% of them children — were still living at US military bases last month, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The window to apply for Miry’s List opens at midnight on the first of every month and closes after 25 families have been enrolled. For October, Whitehill said they were forced to stop taking applicants after just 24 hours.
The high demand led to the organization starting a separate, smaller program for families who may just need emergency supplies and essential items, Whitehill said. That program, which started in August, isn’t limited to 25 families a month.
“What becomes really overwhelming is when we see the need is greater than our capacity to help and we have to close the application knowing there are families that still need us,” Whitehill said. “That’s really hard.”
For anyone wanting to help refugees, Whitehill recommends volunteering time and money to local organizations already working with resettlement. Making sure resettlement agencies and other refugee organizations have the resources they need is critical, she said — otherwise, families can fall through the cracks.
Miry’s List lists opportunities for volunteers to become tutors, translators, drivers, and listmakers for the items that families need. Volunteers also can write welcome letters to families arriving in the US.
“Even writing one welcome letter — anybody can do it,” Whitehill said. “Those letters, when our families receive them … they can feel appreciated and seen. I would say that’s a tremendous place to start.”