Meet the People Using Air Miles to Reunite Migrant Families

Aug 21, 2018

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In Daraa, Syria, Tarek al Shbli was a teacher.

“We were just honest and [hardworking] people,” he said in a recent interview.

But when the Syrian conflict, then in its second year, came to al Shbli’s doorstep in 2013, there was no question about whether he and his wife and three children could stay.

“It’s a crazy war in Syria, and day by day it became more difficult to do everything,” the 36-year-old said by phone from Sweden. “I had to think of my daughters and my son and my wife. I was afraid I would lose my family if I stayed, and decided to leave Syria. The main reason was to stay alive. You don’t understand how easy it was to die.”

The family moved to Amman, Jordan, but after three years, al Shbli had to look for work and a more promising future in Europe. He undertook an arduous and dangerous journey by boat to Sweden, but was forced to leave his wife and children behind. He wouldn’t see them again for two years.

This February, Tarek al Shbli and his family were reunited in Sweden thanks to airline miles.

As the plight of migrants around the world — from those ripped apart by the conflict in Syria to the children separated from their parents by the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance approach on border crossings — has occupied the news, more and more nonprofits have resorted to accepting points and miles as donations, using well-wishers’ loyalty programs to reunite those who haven’t seen their loved ones in years.

Among them is Miles4Migrants, which was formed a year and a half ago solely to convert loyalty-program miles for airlines into a way to help out refugees who couldn’t afford to fly to their parents, spouses or children in other countries. Originally a loose group of people who subscribed to the #churning subreddit, they banded together out of a sense of duty to the less fortunate — and a supremely geeky obsession with getting the most value out of airline rewards.

Janvier, who fled Burundi after war broke out, was reunited with his wife and 2 children, who were 3 years and 5 months old at that time they were separated.
Janvier, who fled Burundi after war broke out, has been reunited with his wife and two children. (Photo courtesy Miles4Migrants)

“We were all massive points junkies,” said Dr. Seth Stanton, the New Orleans eye doctor who serves as CEO of M4M and a #churning moderator. “And when we saw how one of us put up his reports of how he flew this Pakistani family to Italy, there was this giant groundswell of support, and there was this immediate conversation about how to make this a bigger thing.”

To date, the group has reunited 157 people with their families, mostly from the Middle East and Africa. Half have been from Syria, but the group, which is registered as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, is gearing up for the work they have ahead of them to help families torn asunder by the Trump administration’s decision to separate thousands of immigrant children from their parents. (As of last week, 559 of them were still in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to federal officials.)

“A lot of things have changed dramatically with the recent family-separation crisis,” Andy Freedman, an M4M director living in Boston, said.

Indeed, in the last few days alone, the charity has hit 28 million donated miles.

Massoud has been in the UK for two years – when he left Iran his wife Mina was pregnant. His daughter Banu was born whilst they were apart and he watched her grow from a baby into a toddler via phone calls, photos and short video clips his Mina and their family send him. (Photo courtesy Miles4Migrants)
Massoud fled to the UK from Iran while his wife, Mina, was pregnant. He met his daughter, Banu, now a toddler, for the first time when M4M reunited the family.  (Photo courtesy Miles4Migrants)

Because of the vagaries and limitations of many loyalty programs, most people who donate points to M4M do so on their own, buying airline tickets in the name of the refugees they’re helping — in these cases, the group acts almost like matchmaking service, pairing loyalty-program members with immigrants selected and vetted by various resettlement and aid groups M4M has partnered with. (Those using Aeroplan miles can donate directly to the group and not have to make the booking themselves. Cash donations are used to pay for airport fees and taxes.) Miles4Migrants uses its members’ points savvy to get the biggest bang for each donation’s buck.

“We calculate points on the day we book the flight, looking at the other flights available and comparing it to the lowest cost of a one-stop ticket on a nondiscount airline,” Stanton said. “We get really good value for what we do, about 2.2 cents per point for the 157 people we’ve flown.”

The average donation is 31,000 miles, and the average ticket M4M arranges is about 20,000 miles.

“This is 100% volunteer,” Freedman said. “This is our nights, weekends, and very-early-morning passion project.”

Issam was a pastry chef in Syria and fled the country in 2015, going through Turkey and taking a boat to Europe, eventually arriving in Belgium. He has been reunited with his wife and two children. (Photo courtesy Miles4Migrants)

“It’s awesome that we can talk about points valuations and award availability on our side and then the next morning I will literally wake up to a picture of a man meeting his daughter for the first time because of what we did with this stuff,” Stanton said.

When Tarek al Shbli saw his children again for the first time in February at Göteborg Landvetter Airport (GOT), they’d grown a lot — they range from 6 to 10 now. He’d received political asylum from the Swedish government and wanted to send for his wife and kids as soon as he had permission, but he didn’t have the money to buy the airplane tickets. A donor’s airline miles, routed to al Shbli’s family via M4M, was what finally brought them all back together.

“It was a beautiful thing,” al Shbli said. “In Syria, we lost our life, lost our house, our money, everything. I was waiting years and years for this, for my children to come back to me. And these miles were a little thing, not important, for another person, but for me a person like me, it changed our lives. It means a lot to me, and I will never forget.”

Editor’s note: Some last names have been omitted to protect the safety and privacy of the families. Tarek’s age was corrected, and his description of himself was amended to better reflect his intended meaning.

Featured photo: The first family that Miles4Migrant founder Nick Ruiz reunited by using 140,000 AAdvantage miles and $250 for airfare to bring the Pakistani family back together.

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