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The Refugees Among Us Are Just Like Us

From Syria to Afghanistan to Ukraine, conflict has been the rule rather than the exception in the last decade, resulting in millions of refugees and displaced persons worldwide. Back in 2009, America was still fighting the global war on terror while I was doing my master’s degree in security intelligence. My focus at the time was on issues of strategy, weapons systems, terrorism, competition for natural resources, and national defense. But just next door were the human security majors. These students were concerned with the human factor in war and how the global community was handling issues like mass migration, refugees, and community resilience.

Security professionals across the spectrum can benefit from understanding how conflict affects civilians on the ground. As someone who continues to work in the defense industry, I was excited for the opportunity to interview Miry Whitehill, the founder of Miry’s List, an innovative non-profit refugee assistance organization founded in 2016. Miry’s List works to fill in the gaps of an overwhelmed governmental system by providing a mechanism for communities across the United States to contribute resources to new refugee arrivals. Drawing on her previous career in advertising, Miry employs crowdsourcing, social media, storytelling, and community-building activities that can provide lessons for other organizations looking to make a meaningful impact.

For the sake of full disclosure, Miry and I go way back: we are former high school classmates. It’s a special thing to witness a friend develop over the years into an admirable human being with a big heart and brilliant mind. She goes beyond providing mere material support to cater to the complex psychological needs of refugees. She makes newcomers feel truly wanted. She even empowers them to become volunteers themselves, continuing the work of rebuilding their communities that were lost in the chaos of war.

In the following candid interview, Miry opens up about how she got personally involved, expands the aperture of what the refugee process looks like, and clarifies what we can do as Americans to help integrate our newest citizens.

Jessica: Tell me a bit about your origin story. What was the starting point and inspiration behind Miry’s List?

Miry: It was July 2016 in Los Angeles and I was on maternity leave from my advertising job. I had my hands full with a newborn and a three-year-old and I was definitely not looking to start a non-profit organization at the time. But as the Yiddish saying goes, man plans and God laughs, right?

One day, my friend Suzanne calls out of the blue about a refugee family that had just moved from Syria to L.A. They had a baby around the same age as mine and were in need of supplies, so maybe I could help out. The particular challenge that this particular Syrian mom was having that day was that she had nowhere safe to put her baby down in the house—no bouncy chair, no Jumperoo—which was something relatable for any fellow mother. I think this detail is important to share because it’s not like Suzanne called asking me to start a non-profit organization to help refugees. She just called to tell me about this one individual having a problem that was so relatable for me.

So, I show up at this Syrian family’s tiny apartment and immediately I couldn’t help noticing that there were a lot of things missing from this home. Like, essential items. There were no towels on their towel racks, no garbage bags inside the garbage can, no cleaning supplies, just way too many things missing from this home. And I’m scratching my head wondering how this family has been living here already for almost a month and they’re clearly in need of so many basic things.

It was hard not to want to help them. In addition to the new baby, they had five-year-old twins. With the help of a friend on FaceTime who spoke Arabic and English, we walked around the apartment and made a list of what they needed. This was the first list I ever created for one of these families and it had 42 items on it. That’s basically how Miry’s List began.

The very first list that would ultimately launch Miry’s List (Los Angeles, California, c. 2016)

I grew up in a Jewish community where from primary school we were taught the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger. After college, I took a job offer at a tech company in Israel. As a new immigrant in Tel Aviv, I struggled to learn modern Hebrew and make friends in the city. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the people who reached out to me as loving neighbors and made me feel at home. All of these experiences over the years, along with my value system, have informed the approach of Miry’s List.

Jessica: What were some of the other perhaps overlooked immediate needs that you saw among these new refugee families?

Miry: I quickly learned that many of these families who were fleeing the Syrian civil war had first spent several years in Jordan in very difficult conditions before reaching the United States. Many of the kids didn’t have access to school, the parents oftentimes couldn’t work. As for this first family I mentioned, the father had been a successful journalist back in Syria. They had friends and family and a community, they had professional accomplishments and ancestral histories in this country. And then suddenly they were fleeing everything they knew by foot, their familiar surroundings ripped away from them overnight. It’s hard to imagine something like this happening to any of us.

The Khaliqyar family from Afghanistan in their new home (Sacramento, California, c. 2021)

Photo credit: Kevin Fiscus

There is not a lot of informed consent when it comes to fleeing violence and becoming a refugee. When these families leave their homes, they are not moving toward something. They aren’t told what the middle point or end point looks like. It can be chaotic. If they’re lucky enough to make it to the United States, they are essentially invited guests of the U.S. government. Some families are told they will be resettled in Ohio, for example, and then wind up in Sacramento. Or they might be told that they’ll be resettled in the same neighborhood as their cousins, only to find out their cousins got sent to Dallas.

From a psychological perspective, to survive as a refugee means you have to surrender yourself. You release your personal wants, your needs, your preferences—basically making yourself invisible in order to survive. Those who have fled violence and persecution often have no choice but to be quiet and patient while other forces control the future.

This is why our organization’s key approach to supporting these new arrivals is to help them come back to that place of who they are—allowing them to express their own needs and opinions, likes and dislikes. If a family needs a bed, we don’t just insert a bed in their home. We ask, “What kind of mattress do you prefer? What color blankets do you like? Is it ok if we introduce you to a volunteer who would like to take you shopping?” Every person on the planet needs to have a sense of self-worth and self-agency. At Miry’s List, we try to give a little of that back through the process.

Jessica: Aside from providing material donations, what other primary needs does your organization fulfill for these arrivals?

Miry: I think one of the most important needs we provide is a community support system. Many of these refugee families come from places where multiple generations lived in the same house or neighborhood. Can you imagine the shock of going from that environment to a place where you don’t know a soul, except for a case worker at a local government office? By the way, these case workers are often responsible for 200-300 people at a time, so you can imagine how overwhelmed and hardworking they are. Miry’s List tries to fill this gap by sticking with the families for the first 12 months of resettlement, which includes connecting them with each other so that they can start rebuilding their own communities.

Screenshots from the Miry’s List annual report that includes family interviews and impact by the numbers.

The other thing we offer to these families is to actually become volunteers in the organization. It’s very important for people to be of service, particularly when they are going through hard times themselves. To be the receiver of help is a vulnerable thing; it can be quite empowering to be the giver. So many refugees from the first phone call are like, “Hey, just so you know, my English is pretty good. I can help you as a translator for the other families arriving here.” I really believe there’s this higher human instinct to be of service, even when you’re going through your own hard times.

Jessica: After escaping from a conflict zone, what do you see as the biggest psychological barrier that refugees must overcome in order to adjust and hopefully flourish in their new environment in the United States?

Miry: People need structure. As I described before, in their journey to get to the U.S. most of these people were thrust into chaos, their ability to give consent was taken from them, they had no idea how things were going to land for them. By contrast, families who come through Miry’s List go through the three pillars of our program, which is survive, hive, and thrive.

We want people to know what’s coming next. We want there to be informed consent every step of the way. We also want to show new arrivals the tools they need in order to not only survive in the beginning, but thrive in the long run. What we hope is that by the end of the 12-month period every family will have developed a hive—that is, their own community support system.

The Amiri family from Afghanistan outside their new home (Sacramento, California, c. 2021)

Photo credit: Kevin Fiscus

I also want to mention that psychological needs differ according to different age groups. Babies and small children aren’t going to remember much about their family’s escape. Parents are usually focused on the needs of their children first, and might have a tougher time picking up a new language. What we see a lot with these families is that the teenagers are taking on leadership roles. They are often the first to enroll in school, to learn English, some are even the breadwinners. If mom or dad needs to deal with a government office or the dentist or getting a driver’s license, it’s oftentimes the teenagers who are going to step in and manage it.

It’s a lot to take on for a young person and even though you see this incredible strength, it can also come with psychological costs. We actually have a mental health program for resettling youths (ages 15 to 25). It’s sponsored by the Born This Way Foundation which was created by Lady Gaga and her mom, Cynthia. They are absolutely passionate about supporting the needs of youth facing mental health challenges. We’ve been so lucky to partner with them to make sure that this support is also available for our resettling refugee youth.

Jessica: What role do you believe storytelling plays in the refugee survival and integration experience?

Miry: The stories we tell ourselves can affect rehabilitation. I think we have to be conscious of the labels we assign ourselves and to others. The “refugee” label should be a temporary label. Like, if a person who was previously homeless has now moved into housing, is it right to keep labeling them as “homeless” after this situation has been resolved? When someone is seeking refuge, it’s appropriate to call them a refugee. Once they have resettled I think it’s appropriate to refer to these families as new arrivals, newcomers, or new Americans.

Mr. Salehi and his daughters from Afghanistan in their new home (Sacramento, California, c. 2021)

Photo credit: Kevin Fiscus

Storytelling is a healing tool. It gives people the space to talk about what they’ve been through, to organize hard memories and trauma. But as much as it’s important to talk about the hardships, there also needs to be space for the goodness. We should be talking about the strength, heroism, and joy of the new arrival community.

Mr. Salehi, in his new residence in California, holds a traditional Afghan rug that he brought with him from his old home.

Photo credit: Kevin Fiscus

There’s a term in the mass-media obsession with the suffering of refuges and other vulnerable populations: poverty porn. It’s basically the idea of showcasing someone’s suffering in an extreme way to catch someone’s interest. I used to work in advertising, so I think about the effect these kinds of things have on audiences. It poses this question: why do we need to gawk at someone’s suffering? Instead, we should recognize their humanity. They are deserving of the same things we deserve, their children deserve the same access to education and prioritization as our children. Focusing excessively on someone’s suffering is kind of a way of keeping them othered.

We should be using storytelling to find the things we have in common. It could be the experience of suffering, but it’s also things like love for our children, delicious meals we can cook together, the way music brings people together no matter what language they speak. These are the kinds of stories we include in Miry’s List communications. The stories don’t just have to be about the horrors refugee families have fled; it can also be about the wonderful things that have happened since they arrived.

The Asghary family, new Californians from Afghanistan, share their first Thanksgiving with new friends they connected with through Miry’s List (Los Angeles, c. 2021)

Jessica: So, it’s not just about the suffering, but the overcoming of suffering to experience hard-earned resilience. Speaking of resilience in the face of war, is there a story in particular that has inspired you?

Miry: Since I started the organization, I’ve come into contact with over 5,000 people with incredible stories. But if I had to pick just one it would be the story of Dr. Soora Jawad. When Afghanistan collapsed in the summer of 2021, Soora was in the middle of her residency for cardiothoracic surgery in Kabul. She also had a baby. Her husband has a background in business administration and was working for the U.S. government as a manager. They were surrounded by family and community and had an overall very good life when the Taliban took over.

Many of us saw the chaotic evacuations that took place from the airport in Kabul. Soora, her husband, Abed, and their daughter were part of this evacuation. I’ve come into contact with quite a few resettling refugees who were lawyers and doctors before they arrived in the U.S., they had highly specialized careers and then they basically had to start over. Most people would be devastated by this situation. It would be understandable if someone collapsed under these circumstances.

But Soora did the opposite. Despite feeling very isolated and depressed initially by her new surroundings in Virginia, she got her real estate license and started working at a luxury car dealership. Within months, she became one of the top salespeople. She’s able to support her family doing these jobs while also working on her medical license so she can continue to practice medicine here in the U.S.

From left to right: Miry Whitehill, Dr. Soora Jawad, and Rabia Ahmadi, an employee at Miry’s List; Soora’s daughter, Huda, stands in the front (Washington, D.C., c. 2022)

It’s not easy. She and Abed are basically working around the clock to regain their lives. I have a lot of respect for her and the thousands of others who have put in the hard work and energy to overcome their challenges.

Learn more about Soora and Abed Jawad’s journey through this 2021 video interview with CNN here.

Jessica: What is the most helpful thing Americans can do to help refugees adjust to their new lives?

Miry: Find a way to make a human connection. Making a donation or sending a housewarming gift directly to family on the Miry’s List website is one way to do this. Writing a warm letter welcoming the family can really make someone’s day. We receive thousands of letters from all over the country and even from around the world. And I promise you those letters are cherished. I’ve seen new arrival families post those letters on the walls of their homes and it motivates them each day to keep moving forward.

As I mentioned before, government agencies and case workers are swamped. So anything you can do to fill in the gap is greatly appreciated. Google ‘refugee resettlement organizations’ in your area or use the Miry’s List website as a starting point. Sometimes it’s just about locating a nearby family that could really use help getting through all the bureaucracy at the DMV to renew their driver’s license.

Since I started focusing a lot of my energy on refugees in the last six years, I now notice newcomers at my kids’ school or the grocery store or the playground. When I see someone new, I make sure to introduce myself to them. With the conflict going on in Ukraine today, I’ve already met three new arrival Ukrainian families at my kids’ school. We’ve introduced the new arrival kids to the other kids in the neighborhood, so that there’s someone every day on the campus to say hello and make sure they’re ok. We want them to know that they’re not alone, that they have neighbors and friends who care.

There is no limit to the challenges that refugees face when they get here. And so our goal at Miry’s List has never been to solve all their problems. Rather, the hope is to empower individuals to be welcomers and to create the infrastructure for a community support system. So as these heroic families are facing the many challenges of resettlement, they know they’re not doing this alone. And that can truly be transformative for someone. It can even counteract trauma. When someone knows that they’re supported, it creates the space for healing.

Feeling inspired to make a donation? You can go ahead and visit the Miry’s List donations page here.

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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.

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