How Miry Whitehill Resettles Refugees, One Dinner at a Time
Miry Whitehill never set out to start a refugee resettlement organization. Or a monthly supper club featuring Middle Eastern cuisine, hosted by immigrant families—which is how most people find out about the organization, Miry's List. The Los Angeles-based former marketing exec and stay-at-home mom got pulled into this whole thing a year and a half ago, when a friend called. Her church was sponsoring a Syrian refugee family; they needed supplies. She asked Whitehill if she had a hand-me-down baby bouncy to donate.
Whitehill didn't, but asked around on Facebook—within an hour, she'd found one. The next day she and her friend drove it over to the family's apartment in the suburbs, along with some diapers and wipes for their five-month-old baby.
When they entered, they were surprised to see that it was mostly empty, even though the five-person family had been living there for three weeks at that point. There was nothing in the bathrooms: no soap, no towels. The crib didn't have a mattress. The newborn, Mustafa, slept cozily curled in a basket: a solution he would soon outgrow.
Right then and there, Whitehill called a friend who spoke Arabic. Facetiming with him, she and the family went from room to room, making a list of supplies they'd need: Baby formula, a crib mattress, diapers. Bread, eggs, milk. She published the list on Facebook that night, crowdsourcing for locations. Miry's List was born.
A year and a half later, Miry's List is going strong—it's in the process of getting 501(c)(3) status and has served more than 1,400 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Kurdistan. And the touchstone event of the non-profit has become their New Arrival Supper Club: a monthly-ish event where one resettled family hosts a ticketed dinner and takes home the majority of the proceeds. (She can't say just how much, on the record: Most of these families are on public benefits like SNAP, and these numbers could compromise that aid, she says—even though these are one-off gigs and not ongoing jobs.) The waitstaff at these events, also recently immigrated volunteers, get paid $37.50 an hour. Miry's List takes home just 10%.
"It's definitely not a moneymaker for us," she says. "The idea that our families could cook and make money, without needing to speak English. We consciously pay them well. We just want them to know that this event is for them." Though the dinners aren't a huge income stream for the organization, it's a donor funnel—many guests end up donating down the line.
The most recent event, held on Valentine's Day in a backyard in L.A.'s Eagle Rock neighborhood, was sold out. Tickets ranged from $100 to $150 for the exact same experience. "It's a way for people to be able to donate to these families, and we find that many people actually purchase the higher tiered tickets," Whitehill says. The dinner was catered by recent Syrian immigrants Maysaa and Abdul Kanjo, and included a spread of babaganush, two types of fatayer (hand held pies) stuffed with spinach and meat, and fattoush salad.
The Kanjos fled Syria in 2012 amidst the country's civil war, and bided time in Jordan for four years while they waited for a spot to open up in the United States. Finally, they arrived with refugee status in Southern California in 2016, with their four children.
And it's not a coincidence that they ended up here—according to Whitehill, San Diego County is the most popular place in the country for refugees to get resettled. California, in fact, has always been one of the top three states nationwide for refugees in general. This is not altogether unsurprising because of the state's size, but it has far-reaching implications—especially given how overworked caseworkers are.
There are nine agencies nationwide managing 100% of refugee resettlement, Whitehill tells us—over the past year, she's become something of an expert on the matter. She began by Googling "Syrian refugee assistance in California" and cold calling resettlement agencies. "I talked like I did this kind of thing all the time," she says. What she found were caseworkers whose client lists had literally expanded tenfold, almost overnight: from 30 to 300, according to one caseworker.
What was even more surprising was the fact that these caseworkers didn't really know which non-profits to connect clients to—there really a strong network to fill this government-created gap. It turns out that many of these caseworkers were grateful for Whitehill's help, and started referring clients to her. First one or two of the most dire cases they couldn't handle; then more.
Whitehill would even drive to the motels where these families were placed, looking for new people to connect with resources. "Motels are the worst place for these families starting out because they're expensive, unsettling, and gross," she says. Motel owners eventually got to know her, and would give her a call when a new family moved in.
Whitehill would often take her kids on these visits—her five-year-old speaks conversational Farsi. (Whitehill is in the process of learning.)
Currently, the operating budget for Miry's List—which Whitehill doesn't feel comfortable disclosing currently—are covered by private donations and foundational grants, she says. There are 30 people doing work for the organization, and six paid, part-time employees—all of them refugees.
"We will never take money from the government, not that they'd give it to us," she says. "As soon as you take federal grant money, you're spending 30 hours a week reporting where that comes from, andhave to bring on a new full time employee."
But the decision spans beyond practicality. "We are a community organization," Whitehill says. "Refugee resettlement is specifically designed to disconnect refugees from their surrounding communities; they to discourage them from relying on their neighbors. But the reality is that you get independent by feeling safe and secure."
Many of the refugees Whitehill serves are from all cross sections of society: doctors, barbers, engineers, lawyers. They're not necessarily used to receiving help in this way—and she wants to make the process as neighborly as possible.
"As a refugee, you're constantly being served," she says. "You have to wait in line, you have to be quiet, you have to take what you're given." Miry's List, she hopes, is an alternative to that—families get to request supplies based on their needs, like a Cuisinart to blend hummus. Yes, this is something that gets requested all the time, for that very purpose. "For a mom who's resettling as a refugee and wants to give her kids and comfort, it's not just about feeding your kids," Whitehill says. "It's about giving them comfort, and the life they used to know."
If you're interested in an upcoming Miry's List dinner, check out the events calendar here.