Maybe it was the fact that the baby was the same age as one of her own sons. Maybe it was the familiar look of exhaustion on the mother's face. Whatever it was, Miry Whitehill felt an immediate connection to this family she'd never met, even though she couldn't speak to them in their native language, Arabic.
It was September 2016, and a friend had mentioned to Whitehill that a family of Syrian refugees — mother, father, 5-year-old twin girls and a 5-month-old boy — needed some help. Whitehill, a full-time mom to two sons, figured the baby could use that most useful of mom tools: a jumperoo. She posted a note on Facebook asking if anyone had one they didn't need.
Within a few hours, a friend offered one. Whitehill, who lives in Eagle Rock, picked it up and drove it to the apartment building where the family lived. She walked in, introduced herself, picked up the baby and put him in the jumper's seat. He started playing and bouncing. She glanced at the mom.
“She was equal parts completely overjoyed and relieved.”
Whitehill could have left it at that. Instead, she started walking through the apartment. The family had lived there a month and it was almost empty, without even a crib for the baby. Whitehill started making a list.
Crib. Toothbrushes. Shampoo. Baby bath. Formula. Towels.
She posted that on Facebook, too. Neighbors and friends donated everything.
“In about two weeks their house was full of all of the things that a family of five would need,” Whitehill says.
She started calling around to refugee resettlement groups. She put together a list for another family the following month, then a third. Soon she had lists going for two families at a time. Then four.
At 9 p.m. the night before Thanksgiving, she posted on Facebook that she'd be visiting four families on Thanksgiving Day, in case anyone had anything they'd like to unload. “The next morning, I opened the front door and there were piles of donations all the way to the gate.”
In seven months, Whitehill has helped nearly 100 families — most of them refugees from Syria, the rest from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan — create a new semblance of home.
“I didn't make an executive decision to start an organization,” she says. “I just all of a sudden was running an organization.”
Today, that organization, Miry's List, has a team of 30 people working to keep the machine running. Most families comes to Miry's List as a lead from a caseworker or a motel manager, or a text in Arabic from a number Whitehill doesn't recognize.
The list-making begins promptly. A team member who speaks the family's language calls to get the vital stats: names, ages, genders, clothing and shoe sizes. They visit the home to get a better sense of what the family needs. All of that info is passed to a volunteer personal shopper, who crafts an Amazon wish list of 100 or so items, from socks to dish drainers to boxes of crayons.
“Each package represents a family who picked those items out for them and decided to send a gift to a stranger.” —Miry Whitehill
Whitehill herself reviews each list, then posts it to MirysList.org/lists with a photo of the family and their bio. Within days, the family opens their door and there's a pile of boxes from Amazon.
“Each package represents a family who picked those items out for them,” she says, “and decided to send a gift to a stranger.”
Whitehill now hopes to open a Miry's List center in Glendale where refugee families can get child care and take English classes. And there are plans for an app that would automate much of what Whitehill and her team do, so that Miry's Lists can be rolled out in every city in America that's home to refugees.
The lists provide the type of comfort that goes beyond a fluffy towel or a set of pajamas. They show these families, who've had so much ripped from them, that they can start to put their lives back together, piece by piece.
Whitehill got a Facebook message recently from a father from Iran whose family already had a list. He wanted to share with her a photo of an item he'd received in the mail — a box of tea — and the note that came with it.
“Dear Babak,” read the note from a stranger. “My fondest memories of trips to Iran are sitting in the Persian teahouses. I'm so happy you're here. Welcome to America.”