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Miles4Migrants Reunites Immigrant Families

FILE - Demonstrators hold signs as they participate in the "Families Belong Together: Freedom for Immigrants" march in Los Angeles, June 30, 2018.

The nonprofit Miles4Migrants uses frequent flyer rewards to relocate "those displaced by war and persecution" to new homes.

Since its beginning almost two years ago, the organization has collected some 3.1 million frequent flyer miles — points given by airlines to reward loyal customers. But after the last eight days, Miles4Migrants is sitting on more than 24 million miles — all because of a tweet.

"My husband travels a lot. Downside: he's gone a lot. Upside: frequent flyer miles. We just used some to fly a 3-yr-old and his dad, who had been separated at the border, from Michigan."

Beth Wilensky, a law professor at the University of Michigan, had been following the fate of 55 children who had been separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border and brought to Michigan. She'd donated a car seat when "I saw a post that said, 'We need frequent flyer miles. Anybody have some to donate?'"

Wilensky's husband had miles, and she had Twitter followers who she thought might also have miles to donate.

Her tweet went viral.

Miles to go

Michigan Support Circle, a grassroots organization that provides immediate care for migrant families that are already in the United States, put the Wilenskys in touch with the father and son mentioned in her tweet.

The organization is needs-based, working on a case-by-case basis by pairing donors to specific requests from families. To date, Michigan Support Circle has 260 pledges to book flights to reunite families. They're now partnering with Miles4Migrants to help with booking airline tickets.

Most of Miles4Migrants' work has been internationally focused, according to co-founder Andy Freedman.

"The classic case would be a father of a Syrian family [who] has made it to the United Kingdom or Sweden or Brussels and has filed for family reunification visas for the rest of the family. When they are granted that approval, they now need to book a flight and don't have the financial means to do so. That's where our partners loop us in," Freedman told VOA.

After the U.S. federal government mandated family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border and then rescinded the policy, leaving thousands of children waiting to be reunified with their parents, Miles4Migrants began operating nationally.

"We've had plenty of opportunity abroad, but with everything happening on the ground with families being separated, we knew we wanted to do something," Freedman said.

"We hadn't made much progress until that tweet struck last Monday, and now we have a number of partners that we're working with to identify these cases."

More than miles

With 24 million miles, Miles4Migrants can book 1,250 airline tickets. But those tickets will come with an additional cost in booking fees and taxes. Freedman estimates that the organization will need about $60,000 to $70,000 to pay for the costs with ticketing.

"We have a huge opportunity here. What comes with that is some pressure but also people wanting to help, whether that be giving money, helping with the actual booking process and then just generally managing the influx of questions and inquiries," Freedman said.

Nicole Paraggio first donated miles to reunite a mother and two children with their husband/father in Europe in 2016. "It just really tugged at my heartstrings. The fact that these families hadn't seen each other in years. And I was sitting on all these miles that just weren't going to use."

She recently donated again after the family separation crisis, rejoining a different mother and two children with their father. In both instances, she booked the flights herself. And in each case, she received a letter from the father with heartfelt thanks for bringing his family to him.