“Mom, what’s a refugee?”
Ashley Lavin wasn’t sure how to respond when her 5-year-old daughter, Lucy, asked her that question two weeks ago. Lavin, 37, a stay-at-home mom of two on Manhattan's Upper East Side, answered simply but truthfully, telling the little girl, “They’re people whose homes are no longer safe, so some of them come to the U.S.”
When Lucy replied, with 3-year-old brother Billy eagerly listening in, “Can kids be refugees? Can I be their friend?” Lavin was again taken aback. “It was this moment of pure empathy and kindness. As a parent you always want to encourage that,” she said.
So she decided to launch a kid-friendly Valentine’s Day project called Hearts for Refugees to help New York kids and families push their collective urge toward kindness one step further. Lavin, her kids, and her husband Brian, 37, began creating colorful paper Valentine hearts to pass out to local refugees. The cards bear inclusive messages of encouragement, such as “I am your friend” and “I am happy you are here.”
Lavin spread the word about the project to family and friends online, enlisting the support of people from Connecticut to California, as well as a number of women in her neighborhood moms’ group. “The response has been incredible,” she said.
Hundreds of people have since deposited their own handmade heart cards in drop-boxes Lavin set up around Manhattan.
The New York-New Jersey arm of the International Rescue Committee agreed to distribute the cards, and to spread the love even further, Lavin created an online fundraising page, where her family will donate $1 to the IRC for every heart card collected (up to $1,000).
Various New York City schools, synagogues, shops, and community groups have also jumped in to show their open-armed spirit, hosting drop boxes and making cards for the project. Operation Exodus Inner City, a tutoring and mentoring program for Latinx youth in Washington Heights, was one such group. Ann Pennington, a NYC stylist, helped organize the Operation Exodus event, where approximately 50 children from the tutoring program designed their own hearts for refugees.
“The kids were so excited. They knew what this was all about,” Pennington said.
Avigail Ziv, executive director of International Rescue Committee New York-New Jersey, said her department resettles approximately 400 refugees in New York and New Jersey each year, and provides guidance and assistance for up to 4,000 others. Ziv believes the Hearts for Refugees project helps “put a more human face on the refugee crisis. There are [refugee] kids here just starting school, making their lives, and this is a great way to touch them.”
For her part, Lavin said she wasn’t particularly attuned to refugee issues until she “had to be” following the enactment of President Donald Trump’s notorious “Muslim ban.” His highly restrictive executive order, since suspended by a federal appeals court, mobilized countless New Yorkers in protest.
Though she started Hearts for Refugees as a small project to encourage kids’ compassion, after receiving such a promising swell of support, Lavin now sees it in an even broader light.
“We've been able to teach [children] that the world around them is full of overwhelmingly good people,” she said. “And that if we all work together, we can do amazing things.”