As many of you will remember, an executive order was signed in late January that halted all refugee resettlement in the United States, effective immediately. In short order, confusion, chaos, and outrage erupted. We were as flummoxed as anyone else, but as an organization serving refugees, watched as our inboxes filled with messages from people wanting to help in some way. This outpouring of caring and hope and the urge of so many to "do something" was touching, but we did not know what to do with it. We make welcome bags, and there were no more refugees to welcome. What good were these backpacks stuffed with essentials and comfort items if there was no one to receive them? What is Butterfly Boxes without the "boxes"?
Over the next few weeks, as this initial executive order was deemed unconstitutional and we watched new travel bans pop up in its place, we puzzled through what our role might be in this changing landscape. We began with the simple idea to welcome refugees to their new home in Oregon. Perhaps there was a way to expand that beyond our airport arrival bags. And perhaps there was a way to invite others to do the work of welcoming as well.
But here's the thing with welcoming. It's not as easy as it sounds. There are language barriers. And cultural differences. There's fear of the unknown, social anxiety. There are travel considerations, and privacy issues. It's a hard thing to ask a group of people to stretch beyond their comfort level, and we struggled with how to make an ask like that successful. And then we found the answer where answers are often found...
...in a plate of food.
Something happens when you share a meal with someone. The food and drink in front of you gives you something to do with your hands, allows silences to not be immediately filled, and gives a place for conversation to begin.
"Have you tried the pasta salad?"
"Does the rice have nuts?"
"Do you have Doritos where you come from?"
It was this thought, the thought of a shared meal, of a room full of people coming together for food and conversation that led us to our Community Dinners, to what our role could be as the future of refugee resettlement continues in uncertainty. Once a month, we invite established community members and newly arrived refugees to come together in the offices of Catholic Charities of Oregon for a meal. We ask community members to bring the food, and were able to schedule the dinners to begin immediately following the cultural orientation classes put on by Catholic Charities. There is no program to the evening, no ask of those who are coming (other than bringing food to share). It is simply a chance to eat incredible food and meet new people and to say welcome to our newest community members.
We hosted our first dinner in March, in partnership with Catholic Charities. In the weeks leading up to the dinner, we worried about everything. Would community members come? Would refugees come? Would people bring food? Would people talk to each other? Would this work? Were we crazy?
200 people came. Community members. Refugees, both recently arrived and those who've come to the US in every decade since 1960. Folks from refugee resettlement. Police officers. Friends and friends of friends and people we had never met before. Every time the elevator door opened, at least a dozen people got off. And the food. There was so much food. Amazing food. We had to scramble to find more tables to put the food on. We fed 200 people and sent mass amounts of leftovers home with families. It was a whirlwind of "hellos" and "nice to meet yous" and "welcomes" and when it was over, we could hardly believe it had worked.
Would it work again? April, May, and - just last week - July. Three more dinners. Three more successes. There are familiar faces every month, but there continue to be new faces as well. And to those new faces, as long as we see them, we will say, "Welcome".
Familiar face or new, please consider joining us at our next Community Dinner. Check here for more information.
We help because it’s the right thing to do.
We help because we believe in the humanity of all people.
We help because there’s a need and we happened upon a workable plan to address it.
We help because we know our family wouldn’t exist without those who came before us.
1960. Havana, Cuba.
A banker walked out of work and into a car that whisked him away to the airport. He boarded a plane to New York City. When he arrived, he called his wife and told her he’d left and she needed to find a way for her and their ten children to join him.
Earlier, in the bank, he’d once again refused to work for the communist regime that was quickly converting his –and all- banks to state-controlled entities. Decades later, family lore claims he declared he’d sell his soul to the devil before he’d work for Castro. In the car, his driver proved to be a loyal friend, tipping him off to the fact that an execution order had been placed on him.
While he toiled in New York, his wife took action back home in Havana. She joined the counter-revolution and made plans for her family’s escape. She successfully avoided raising suspicions among the spies and newly-stationed soldiers who lived down the block. She acquired the necessary paperwork to leave the country. When the rules changed between the time she first acquired the documents and when they received permission to leave, she started the process anew. And when the United States refused her and their ten children visas, she sought another country’s assistance.
Months after receiving the phone call from her husband, with the blessing and assistance of the British Embassy, the family boarded a plane to Jamaica. They’d packed only the essentials. Still, when they arrived at the airport, soldiers inspected their luggage and removed items with any monetary value. These eleven people boarded a plane to begin a new life with two suitcases containing a small number of clothes, a few paper records, and two photo albums. Once on the plane, they sat on the tarmac in fear until takeoff. They’d heard the stories about soldiers boarding planes full of those leaving their country and forcibly removing a handful of children, pulling them away from their families to work in camps, and then sending the plane off with the remaining family members still on board. They knew it was possible they wouldn’t all be leaving the island; they knew it was possible they might not all remain together.
This time, the plane took off with all of the passengers who’d boarded. This time, none of the passengers would pay a bodily price for their decision to leave. Instead, back on the island, the man’s brother paid the price with two years of imprisonment and torture.
The wife and children found a warm welcome in Jamaica, but it wasn’t their final destination. They intended to reunite the family in the United States, so she set to work on yet more documentation. The man moved to Miami, and soon the eight oldest children joined him. Months later, his wife and their two youngest flew over their beloved Cuba to reach the rest of their family. Even still, it wasn’t the final leg of their journey. Many Cubans were settling in Miami, but not all. An influx of people meant there wasn’t enough work for everyone, and wages that could support a family of twelve proved elusive. So by March 1961, the family boarded one more plane to Portland, where they were resettled as refugees by an organization that would come to be called Catholic Charities of Oregon.
That man was my grandfather, his wife my grandmother, and the fifth of their children my father. The journey wasn’t without struggle, and their acclimation to Portland wasn’t always easy. But ultimately those ten children grew up, found success in careers, and started families of their own. And they taught their children and grandchildren that none of that would have been possible without the help of those who cared about doing right for humanity, from the driver who saved my grandfather’s life to those who welcomed them on each leg of their journey.
We help because we believe in paying forward the generosity of those who helped our family survive.
Adrienne & Alysson
Adrienne has been sharing brief vignettes of our family’s life in post-revolutionary Cuba in public Facebook posts. If you’re interested in reading the stories of children living under a dictatorial regime that ultimately forced their parents to flee for their safety, find a directory here.
A couple of weeks ago, a local elementary school reached out to us, wanting to use their Day of Service to have first graders make cards for Butterfly Boxes, specifically for children arriving and preparing to attend a new school in their new home. We were thrilled to say yes, and headed over to Sitton School on Friday afternoon, Inauguration Day.
In a former life, I was a kindergarten teacher, so I happily hopped up in front of 75 adorable and eager faces. We asked the kids to share with us what they knew about refugees, expecting them to have some familiarity, maybe even some personal stories to share, but their answers blew us away.
"Refugees have to leave their homes because they are not safe."
"Refugees come to a new home and can't bring anything with them."
"Refugees start a new life because their old life is dangerous."
We asked the students to imagine having to move and pack up all their most important things in a suitcase shared with brothers or sisters. What could they bring? What would they have to leave behind? How do you choose? Jaws dropped and negotiations started as they realized the toys, the electronics, the stuff that would need to be left behind.
Finally, we asked the first graders to tell us what they would tell a new student, coming from somewhere far away, unfamiliar with school in Portland, OR, to help them feel welcomed at school.
"You are awesome"
"At school you will have fun."
"We love you."
"At school you are safe."
Our presentation finished, the students returned to their classrooms and got to work. We got to pop in and watch them work, help with sounding out words. Despite it being a Friday afternoon, after nearly a week off for snow days, these 6- and 7-year-olds were focused, ready for the task at hand. They worked hard writing and illustrating beautiful welcomes. We left that afternoon uplifted in a way we didn't think possible on a dark and dreary day.
Kids aren't suspect of refugees. They don't fear their motives or question their choices. It's really quite simple for kids: they hear there's a problem, they get to work finding a solution. For kids unfamiliar with school, cards to help them feel welcome are an easy fix. For people arriving with few possessions, a bag of necessities and basic comfort items is an easy fix. Easy fixes we can do. It's the bigger fixes that will take time.
Thanks to Sitton School for your support, thanks to the first graders for your hard work and beautiful cards, and thanks to everyone else who continues to support us.
Alysson & Adrienne
January 21, 2017 was a historic day. If you're reading this blog, chances are good you have also seen the photos and news stories from cities across the world, flooded by women and girls (and men and boys) in pink hats marching to make their voices heard. The accounts are astounding, the photos beautiful, and we stand 100% in support of those that were out there. In the city of Portland alone, over 100,000 people filled the downtown core in a 100% peaceful protest. We are so proud of this amazing city.
For our part, we knew we needed to do something meaningful on this day, but neither of us are good with large crowds, and I have two small children I was nervous about involving. So, we decided that January 21, 2017 would be the perfect date for our monthly volunteer event. Sixteen like-minded people joined us, and absolutely rocked the afternoon. In less than two hours, our crew put together 37 adult bags, and checked another 29 bags that had been donated in the last month.
All told, we delivered 66 finished bags to Catholic Charities, replenishing their stock just in time - they had delivered their last adult bag earlier in the week. As we finished stuffing bags onto their newly dedicated Butterfly Box shelving, a case manager arrived to pick up an adult bag to take to a newly resettled refugee. To all of our donors and volunteers, that need, and the others that follow, would have gone unmet if not for you. Thank you.
In addition to the date, the moment in history, this volunteer event meant a lot to us because for the first time, when introductions were made, most of the people who came to support our cause came just to support our cause, not also because they are our friends or family. Obviously, the support of our friends and family is incredible, and it's no less important that the support of others in our community. But, to look into a crowd of people and realize that they are there not because they love us, but because they heard about our organization and were moved enough to reach out and help, is an unbelievable feeling. We are so thankful for everyone's support, and we love seeing new faces and hearing from new people. It lets us know that we must be on the right track with this endeavor, and that regardless of what lies ahead, the hearts of so many remain open to the refugees arriving in Portland everyday.
Thank you again and again.
Alysson & Adrienne
There might be a day in the future when we stop looking at each other in wonder. At the volume of Amazon boxes UPS delivers every day. At the people who ask what more they can do to help. At the business owners who set out a box and ask their customers to contribute. That day might come, but I hope it's far in the future. You really can't beat the feeling of awe that happens when you learn the very best of people.
Even with that feeling coming every day, it can still catch me off-guard. That was true a few weeks ago when I heard from the owner of a knitting subscription company I'd subscribed to for several years. I had also done a little bit of consulting for the company, but I let that and my subscription lapse when a new owner came on board. I tried to put off his call by saying that I was far too busy with a new organization I'd started, but my excitement about Butterfly Boxes got the better of me when he asked if I'd tell him a little about it.
It turns out KNITCRATE owner Rob Colon and I have something in common. We both have parents who were children when their families were forced to flee Cuba after the revolution. For me and my family, that’s meant keeping an eye on how we can help new refugees as they are resettled in the same city that welcomed my grandparents to safely raise their 10 children. It’s meant paying forward the generosity that allowed my dad and his siblings to flourish. And more recently, it's meant Butterfly Boxes.
For Rob, this shared experience of the refugee history meant immediately responding with “How can KNITCRATE help?” Well... my dad’s family has a tradition of welcoming every new family member with a quilt made by many of us working together. We strive to have an echo of that tradition by committing to include handmade items in as many Butterfly Boxes as we can. After all, we’re welcoming new neighbors into our community. I told Rob about the snow that was swirling around out my window and about the family of 8 Somalis that we'd welcomed at the airport, just 2 pieces of luggage among them - none of which contained hats, gloves, or other cold-weather appropriate clothing. So I suggested sharing information about Butterfly Boxes with their subscribers, who live around the globe, hoping to encourage them to check out our website and contribute should they feel compelled - or to encourage them to find a similar opportunity local to them.
I wasn’t thinking big enough. Or not as big as Rob, anyway. He came back with a proposal to name Butterfly Boxes the KNITCRATE Charity of the Year for 2017. That feeling of awe grabbed hold of me again - he gets it. With more than 1,300 refugees arriving in our community this year, all lacking cold weather items like hats, gloves, & scarves, but also washcloths & comforting items like toys and baby blankets, the need is constant. And Rob wanted his company to do something about it.
Every month this year, we'll identify a high-need seasonal item, and Rob & his team will offer incentives to KNITCRATE subscribers who send their handmades to us to distribute in Butterfly Boxes.
We're going to be watching social media for #knitcrategives and #butterflyboxeshandmade, but I'm still steeling myself for the constant wonder of every time we open a package of handknits from around the world. We are so lucky. We get to learn and receive the very best of people.
Adrienne & Alysson
If we say "thank you" too many times, does it start to become redundant? Lose its true meaning? I hope not, because once again, the only words that can truly convey what we experienced yesterday are a very heartfelt THANK YOU.
When, days before Christmas, we put the call out for volunteers to come help us assemble bags, we didn't know what to expect. Would people show up? Would our plan work? Would our ideas make sense? Would everyone have fun? As has happened time and again in the last six weeks, our worries were for nothing and our expectations were exceeded.
Our volunteers rocked.
They showed up in force and ready to work. From toddler to adult, everyone was doing a job, and the completed bags piled up. KPTV 12 stopped by to chat with us (see below for the link to that news story), and as Adrienne and I broke away to be interviewed, the buzz of productivity continued behind us.
When we began the afternoon, we thought we might finish the event with 35 bags to give to Catholic Charities for distribution. We felt good about that number, and were told that that might meet, or come close to meeting, the need for January. That would have been a fantastic day's work, and we would have walked away from the afternoon feeling pretty darn good. Well, that didn't happen. Not even close.
Instead, our AMAZING crew completed 62 bags. 62 bags. In two hours. 62 bags that will go into the arms of 62 refugees just stepping off a plane into a new home. 62 bags that will help 62 people transition from a life unsettled to a place where they can take hold and grow. 62 bags that will bring comfort and the most basic of necessities to 62 people who have so little.
It's a day later and we are still marveling at what we were witness to yesterday. To have been able to step back for a moment and see this thing that we dreamed up actually working was incredible. Friends, family, new acquintances all teaming up to bring Butterfly Boxes to life. We are, as always, so thankful.
Please continue supporting and spreading the word, and we'll do it all again next month!
- Alysson and Adrienne
Portlanders don't deal well with snow. An inch or two can shut the city down for days, and as it ices over, life comes to a standstill until the thaw.
Except at Portland International Airport. At the airport, flights arrive, flights depart, and the hustle and bustle inside pays no mind to the weather outside. And for the family of eight Somalis, arriving at PDX after over a decade spent in an Ethiopian refugee camp, the snow and cold is a harsh and foreign welcome to their new home.
On Monday we learned that we would be greeting the first family our Butterfly Boxes would serve on Wednesday afternoon. Even as the threat of snow became more and more of a sure thing, we finished up assembling the bags and made plans to be there. As we loaded the car and picked up our mini-helpers from school, we watched the snow start to accumulate and briefly considered postponing. Traffic was already snarling, and we had no idea what conditions would be like in a few hours as we would be attempting to get home. But this wasn't about us, and frankly, we had alternatives if it became truly unsafe to travel home. This family we were meeting, arriving with two large suitcases filled with all their worldly possessions, had no alternatives. They were landing no matter what our weather had in store, and they would be thirsty and hungry and ill prepared for the weather.
We arrived shortly after their flight arrived, but saw no sight of anyone we knew from the resettlement agency. Not wanting to insert ourselves in a situation and process we were unfamiliar with, we hung back for a bit before getting a text that both case managers were stuck in the awful snow storm traffic and were still quite far from the airport. Luckily, the family had a US tie (someone they know who already lives in Portland) with them who could interpret for us, and we were able to greet them and introduce ourselves as volunteers. We showed them where to find their luggage and waited with them while our phones lit up with texts from the stuck case managers.
All Butterfly Boxes include a reusable water bottle and snacks, and we were able to pass those out while we waited. Our mini-helpers (aged 6 and 3) were a big help with this, and then made it their job to entertain, teaching the children songs like "If You're Happy and You Know It" and "I'm a Little Teapot". The wait was long, but those few comfort items, and some kid humor, seemed to help tremendously.
The first case manager arrived during snacks and the kids' performances, and as we waited for the second case manager and the van that would take the family and their luggage to their temporary home, one of the older sons showed us pictures of the family he had had to leave behind in Ethiopia. A wife, two beautiful little girls, and twin boys, abut the age of our youngest mini-helper. He had a stack of photos, but what he must have been feeling having had to say good-bye is unimaginable. We send all the hope and good thoughts in the world that they are reunited soon, and that their continued time in the refugee camp is short.
After waiting a bit longer, we received word that the van was still stuck and having difficulty in the icy weather. She was still an hour out. The case manager had only a small car, and he said he could take the family to their temporary home, but not their luggage. So, we agreed to store the luggage in our car and meet up with the van later, either at the airport or back in town. It was at this moment we saw the absolute need in what we are trying to do with Butterfly Boxes.
Just imagine for a moment you have just finished a multi-day journey with your entire family. You have arrived in a city you have maybe never heard of before. You are in an airport you have no hope of navigating on your own. You are on your way to a home you have never seen, a home that already houses a family, a home that is not even the one you get to call yours yet. The weather is freezing and slippery and dangerous. Everything you own in the world is in two worn suitcases. Because of bad weather and crazy circumstance, you can't take even those with you. You hand them over to complete strangers and trust that you will see them again. And in return, the strangers hand you bags and backpacks. There are snacks, maybe not food you are used to, but Goldfish crackers are pretty darn good at the end of a long trip. There is a hat and gloves. There is shampoo, conditioner, soap, and a towel set. You can wash the journey off of you, and end the night clean and dry. There is a stuffed animal for a little one to snuggle, and books and crayons to keep them entertained. You may not have your things, but you have something. And when all you own is in two suitcases in a stranger's trunk, something is everything.
We all walked out into the frigid air toward our cars, the family hurrying to zip up their thin coats and us passing out the hats and gloves from the Butterfly Boxes. We walked carefully along the frozen sky bridge, wheeling suitcases and carrying Butterfly Boxes. Their US tie scooped up my struggling 3-year-old. We said goodbye at the car, packed their suitcases in ours, and headed back inside to wait for the van and the second case manager. She arrived, four hours after leaving her office 11 miles away, and we handed over the family's luggage. Three more families were arriving later that night, so she settled in to just stay put until they were all here. We left with sleepy mini-helpers, and made the harrowing 4 mile drive home. We received word around 9 pm that the family had made it to their home as well, nearly six hours after their arrival in Portland. Their journey was one step closer to being complete, but for the three families still to arrive and the countless others waiting to leave, there is still so much time to wait.
We helped one family last night. Our first family. And the fact that conditions were so far from ideal made the fact that we could help that much more poignant. We are so thankful that we were there, and that we had real help to give. But there is so much more need. There are another 50+ refugees arriving through Catholic Charities between now and Christmas. And the need continues after the new year, and will likely not slow. We may not be able to gift all of Oregon's refugees with Butterfly Boxes, but we will gift as many as we can, and we will come as close to meeting the need as we possibly can. We can only do that because of the help and generosity from those who have supported us and who continue to support us. We say it over and over because it is true - none of this happens without all of you. Thank you.
- Alysson and Adrienne
It has been just over two weeks since we launched Butterfly Boxes, and the response has been unbelievable. It is not an exaggeration to report that every day has brought multiple Amazon deliveries and/or complete bag drop offs. The generosity of friends, family, online acquaintances, and complete strangers has astounded us both, and reaffirmed for us that the good can outweigh the bad in this world.
In addition to the daily drop-offs on our doorstep, we have heard from community members who are arranging group efforts for Butterfly Boxes. Neighbors who have chosen us to be their winter giving recipients, classrooms working together to assemble bags, work retreats using their downtime to craft for us, and a dental office sending toothbrushes and toothpaste. Each day has brought a new excitement for us, and the number of texts back and forth that contain some version of "Holy cow...can you believe this?" increases daily.
But, we can't get too caught up in all this excitement and awe. The work is just beginning. We are turning all these wonderful donations into complete Butterfly Boxes that will be put into the arms of newly resettled refugees soon. We are working out details for a partnership with a local refugee organization. We are fine tuning our shopping lists. We are working out the best ways to communicate with all of you. You, who have blown us all away with generosity and love for this idea of ours.
And so, before we move any further, we want to take a minute to say THANK YOU to everyone who has supported us, talked about us, shared our story. Please, continue sharing, continue talking, continue supporting. We have big plans for this little project, but none of it will mean anything without the continued support of our community.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
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Welcome. It's a simple word, really. Two syllables. Good consonant/vowel balance. Appropriate in a multitude of settings. But, for such a simple word, a good, heartfelt "welcome" can mean the world.
It's this simple premise that spawned Butterfly Boxes. A call from one sister-in-law to the other to ask about babysitting turned into shared concern about the future of social issues in this country, particularly that of refugees fleeing often dangerous and inhumane situations to seek a safe and prosperous life here. The refugee experience was not new to us (as you can read in "Our Story"), but when brainstorming what role we could play in spreading love back out into the world, it seemed obvious that this is where our focus is meant to be. Dreamed up in that phone conversation - no longer about babysitting - was an idea to greet refugees as they arrive in our city with a box, made by members of their new community wishing to say, "Welcome". That box would include the simple things anyone traveling long distances would want - snacks, water, toiletries - but also items meant to bring comfort, hope, love - a stuffed animal, a hand knit baby hat, a note of welcome. Most importantly, that box would be a message from the community that our new arrivals are welcomed, loved, and home.
A butterfly moves through stages in its life. Caterpillar to butterfly, with time in the chrysalis in between. One stage is not more important than any other, but all are necessary in making a life. For refugees leaving all that they have known behind to find a new place in a new home, it's a bit like taking flight with wings you are still stretching and learning to use fully. What came before - the caterpillar - is still there, still a part of the whole, but the butterfly can finally feel free to take flight.
Welcome to our cause. Thank you for supporting Butterfly Boxes.
- Alysson and Adrienne