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November 29, 2021

Inspired by refugee stories, Tennessee interior designers use their platform to support refugees

Thomas McKay and his husband, PJ, share a passion for interior design, restoring old homes and documenting their journey from a couple to a new and growing family. In 2019, they began using their extensive social media and web presence as The Property Lovers to advocate and raise awareness about the global refugee crisis by becoming USA for UNHCR Refugee Champions. We recently spoke with Thomas about what inspired their interest in refugees and why the issue is important for all Americans to support.

The Why I Give series provides supporters like Thomas an opportunity to share why they support refugees and offer encouragement for other compassionate Americans to join them. Stories will feature the kindness of our donors from across the U.S. 

portrait of thomas and pj smiling at the camera

What inspired you to start raising awareness about refugees?

Honestly, it all started when I read the book Notes from My Travels by Angelina Jolie. The book is about her first experiences with refugees from her travels and she documents what she saw. I was reading the book at the time when my husband and I were placed with our foster kids -- who are now part of our family, we recently adopted them -- and I kept thinking what if that was one of our kids that these horrifying events were happening to? 

I was on the couch in our living room and I just started crying and I've never cried from a book before. Then after I finished the book, I put it down and thought, well, what can we do?  I reached out to USA for UNHCR and asked if there were any opportunities to help and get involved, and there were. It all stems from reading Angelina Jolie’s book and from being a foster dad. My eyes were opened to a whole other world that is a lot bigger than myself or my husband's.

As you continue to raise awareness about the global refugee crisis, what is the most striking thing you’ve learned?

I think that the biggest thing I’ve learned and maybe the most obvious one is just how staggering the number of refugees that there are. I’ve also become more aware of how sheltered we are. I think, how could we not know about all of these struggles and plights that tens of millions of people are facing around the world? 

The issue that I'm especially feeling for right now is the climate issue and how many people are displaced because of climate-related events and it's only getting worse. I think about it every time I take the recycling out. I think about just all of the small changes that we can make halfway around the world that can help impact everyone. That's been on my heart lately. 

For more than a year, you’ve been sharing the stories of refugees with your hundreds of thousands of followers on social media and your website. What is your hope for these posts? 

My first hope is that the stories of refugees resonate. I hope that [our followers] feel something and that they feel compelled to do something. Whether that's sharing the story on social media or clicking the donate button. I just hope that they feel something. I also hope that they click the links and they keep on educating themselves and donate. I usually say, however much you can donate, every little bit helps. Those are my wishes for people who read what we post.

What has the response been like? Are you finding your community supports your advocacy?

We've received comments and even emails where people are like, “Oh my gosh, I'm so glad that you are talking about this.” It feels good that people are interested in helping others. Whenever we share links on Instagram and we see that people are actually clicking the links and following them I feel a lot of joy. The response has been positive and I'm glad that there are other people out there who are passionate and are willing to help, it's important.

portrait of pj and thomas with their three children

What have you learned about resettled refugees that have been welcomed to communities all around the United States?

Whenever you read about the refugee crisis it's easy to get very discouraged -- how dire the situation is and how much people need. But then when you read a story about a refugee being resettled in the U.S. and they have a job and a family and they're starting a life here, it just gives me so much hope. I don't know any resettled refugees in our small southern town in Tennessee, but whenever I read the stories on the USA for UNHCR website, I get hope and I get joy. I feel joy.

I can't imagine the work that it takes to get halfway around the world after all the trauma of just trying to survive and then starting over. Starting your life all over and starting over in a foreign country. The resilience that it must take is astounding. I think that every time I read a story about that I just get a feeling of hope and say to myself, “Okay, we can do this.”

Following up on the storytelling thread, lifting the voices of refugees is vital to USA for UNHCR’s mission. Can you comment more on what the importance of storytelling is for you? 

I think that part of sharing refugee stories is in a sense about representation. Representation does so much for people who are struggling. I know that personally, being part of the LGBTQ community, representation is everything. I feel like that if other refugees see those who have been resettled and started over, and although it's difficult, these stories can give them hope and the drive and the fight to keep pushing and moving forward.

What would you say to other Americans who are thinking about supporting refugees but are maybe still on the fence or a little apprehensive?

We're all humans on this planet and we only have one life and why not spend it helping people who need it. I mean place yourself in a refugee’s shoes. I would love it if someone would help me out if I needed it. I think it's just about helping if you can and whatever that looks like: whether it's talking to your friends or your family at the dinner table about refugees, posting on social or donating money to an organization like USA for UNHCR. Just help however you can.

How you can help...

Join Thomas and PJ and other compassionate Americans and give kindness this year. Becoming a monthly donor is the most efficient and effective way to help those fleeing conflict. Make a difference in the lives of refugees by becoming USA for UNHCR’s newest monthly donor.