A Single Tweet May Have Helped Over One Thousand Refugees Get To A New Home

A viral tweet about donating frequent flier miles is about to change some lives.

A Single Tweet May Have Helped Over One Thousand Refugees Get To A New Home

With one Twitter thread, Beth Wilensky may have helped hundreds or even thousands of refugees complete their journey to a new home.

Wilensky, an assistant professor at University of Michigan's Law School, first tweeted to her followers about how her husband had used his frequent flyer miles to help get a father and son that had been reunited in Michigan after being separated at the border on a plane to their extended family. In the thread that followed, she linked to groups that used donated frequent flier miles on refugees and migrants for similar journeys. 

Wilensky didn't expect her tweet to blow up, but it did. The initial tweet exploded — with more than 30,000 retweets — and the organizations she mentioned in the thread that followed began to reap the rewards. 

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"It's kind of weird and uncomfortable to get so much attention for me when I feel like those those organizations and volunteers are really the ones that have done so much work," Wilensky told A Plus. "Thrilled is the word that I come up with, but it doesn't feel adequate to respond the amazing generosity from people across the country... It's been so wonderful to watch this happen and to kind of play a role in it."

One of those organizations that benefitted from Wilensky's tweets was Miles4Migrants, a 501c3 non-profit founded in October of 2016. Miles4Migrants was started after Nick Ruiz, one of the four founders, encountered the refugee crisis firsthand while living in Italy and getting his PhD in computer science. Ruiz met several refugee families, including one man who had finally received a visa so his family could join him in Italy. But the man couldn't pay the $5,000 it'd cost to fly them there. 

"I discovered that while the cost of the flight was crippling, it was possible to use American Airline miles to fly his family out," Ruiz told A Plus. "In the end, he'd only end up spending about $250 out of pocket. That idea spawned the idea of Miles4Migrants."

Ruiz posted about the experience on r/Churning, a Reddit thread dedicated to tips, tricks and news about credit cards and miles. One of the moderators of the thread was Seth Santon, who saw Ruiz's post and loved the idea so much he reached out to figure out a way the two could scale it up. The result was Miles4Migrants, a group that — since registering as a charity in September of 2016 — has used 3.1 million miles to fly 151 migrants and refugees, or about 60 families. 

And in the 10 days since Wilensky's tweet, the group has received more than 26 million miles in donations — almost nine times the amount they've seen donated in the last two years. Now, they just have to find enough partners and charities to put the miles to use. 

Founders from left to right: Nick Ruiz, Seth Santon, Ryan Booth, Andy Freedman Migrants4Miles

Through their legal partners and charities, Miles4Migrants will be presented with refugee families who have already gone through the process of getting approved to move. The partners come to them when everything is set, then Miles4Migrants finds people who want to donate and — in almost all cases — the people donating actually purchase the flight for the family in question. 12,500 miles is the minimum donation the organization usually asks for, which is typically the lowest amount you can book a flight for.  

"We request them to book their ticket on our behalf right now, which gives our donors the ability to really be in the pipeline," Ruiz said. "They [the refugees] have government approval to travel, the only thing that's holding them back is the plane tickets. Many times they are crippling for refugees and their families… by donating points and miles, we're able to get those tickets."

One of the points both Ruiz and Stanton emphasized was that Miles4Migrants is not a political or agenda-driven group.  Ruiz comes from a religious background and feels motivated at least in part by scripture to do the work he does. Stanton's mother is Jewish and his dad is Catholic, but he identifies more as agnostic — he just believes families should be together. One of the other founders, Ryan Booth, is a former chair for the Republican party in Louisiana.

"I'm fairly sure that Ryan and I have never voted for the same candidates in Louisiana ever," Stanton said. "But to me, that doesn't really matter, because we both agree that families should be together. We don't participate in the whole politicization of the refugee crisis, of the migration crisis, that's not our role. What we're interested in is reuniting families."

A June, 2018 Families Belong Together rally in San Francisco. Karl_Sonnenberg / Shutterstock.com

When Miles4Migrants started, the group's plan was to address the horrific refugee crisis across the globe, which affects some 50 million children. In 2016 alone, 66 million people were displaced by the refugee crisis. But now, with a crisis on the border that has left families separated and parents trying to reunite with their children, Miles4Migrants has started using some of their donations to aid in the reunification process. Stanton says dipping its toes into domestic reunions is the only real evolution Miles4Migrants has undergone.

Ruiz said whenever refugee families come into someone's community, the community should put aside thoughts about whether they should be there and just do their best to help the families stay safe and stay together. 

"In my opinion, regardless of where one stands on migration issues, Christians are taught to love their neighbor and care for the widow, orphan, and traveler when they're in need," Ruiz said. "Most of the refugee and immigration crisis today boils down to exactly that: families in need." 

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