By Alaa Elassar, CNN
New York (CNN) — Barbara Lakin sits on a bus in New York City, her fingers busy sewing blue thread into a tiny dress. On the seat beside her, six disheveled Barbie dolls stick out of her backpack.
“People must think I’m insane, sitting on a bus sewing clothes for dolls, but they don’t know who I’m doing this for,” Lakin told CNN.
The little girls who are going to get these dolls are migrants. Most of them have traveled with their families for months to get to the US border, usually fleeing poor economies and dangerous situations at home in Central or South America.
Using old Barbies she buys or donated dolls, Lakin, a New Yorker living in the East Village, restores the toys as gifts for the children. A former fashion designer, she spends hundreds of hours sewing unique, couture outfits for the dolls.
“Some of these families have traveled from country to country to get to the border, then spent 40 hours on a bus to come here. They got everything taken away from them,” Lakin, 66, said.
“It’s hard to imagine what these children have gone through. I think for a child to have a toy, especially in these circumstances, is really important. It’s something that can comfort them, something that they can hold close.”
Lakin is a volunteer with Team TLC NYC, an organization that began meeting migrants at New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal in 2022, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott started busing them from the border to Washington and New York.
As of August 1, more than 95,600 asylum-seekers have come through New York City’s intake centers since last spring when migrants first began arriving, according to Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services Anne Williams-Isom. The deputy mayor renewed the city’s call for help from the federal government, highlighting Mayor Eric Adams’ meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last week.
Last week alone, 2,300 asylum-seekers entered the system, Williams-Isom said while discussing the crisis at a briefing at The Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, the city’s first asylum-seeker arrival center.
Migrants were reportedly sleeping on sidewalks outside the center for days as the city regularly ran out of shelter space as a result of the influx of asylum-seekers, CNN affiliate WCBS reported. Migrants have been temporarily placed in hotel ballrooms, lobbies and a church in Long Island City, WCBS said.
Upon their arrival in the city, Team TLC NYC volunteers welcome the migrants and provide them with urgent necessities. In March, the organization also opened the Little Shop of Kindness, where the migrants can shop for free and young migrant girls can receive the Barbies.
“The shop is set up as if it’s a real shop, so it gives them a sense of dignity instead of forcing them to rummage through a bunch of old clothes in a pile,” said Lakin of the racks of donated clothing, including pants, shirts, dresses and shoes.
The store, in front of Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan, has served thousands of migrants since opening in March, Team TLC NYC director Ilze Thielmann told CNN.
Lakin, who is half Mexican and originally from England, has given away nearly 20 Barbies so far and hopes people will donate more, especially Black and brown Barbies that look more like the girls who will get them.
“They need the essentials, clean underwear, jeans and T-shirts. But right at the end of when they finish shopping for free things, we have a counter where we have the extra things – the scrunchies for the hair, toys, jewelry – and that’s what puts a smile on the face, especially if they know the story behind it,” Lakin said.
“When we surprise them with the Barbies, it makes them feel even more special when they know that I actually made the clothes.”
It’s more than just a Barbie doll
Some of the children who walk through the Little Shop of Kindness have witnessed unspeakable horror during their trek to the US, including seeing dead bodies, said Thielmann. They often arrive exhausted, sick and hungry after an arduous and heart-wrenching journey, with very few personal belongings.
While toys will never take away the trauma they experienced or the hardships they still face, Lakin said the dolls do make a difference.
The first doll that inspired Lakin’s mission was a brown doll that had been discarded and accidentally discovered by a fellow volunteer at the shop. Rather than throw it away, Lakin found herself instinctively cleaning the doll and sewing her a dress. Days later, she gave it to a little girl who had just arrived with her family at Port Authority.
“She was so happy, and Ilze later saw the little girl cradling the doll like it was a baby, she was so taken by it,” Lakin said.
When the Little Shop of Kindness began receiving an influx of long-sleeved shirts nobody wanted, Lakin took her Barbie mission a step further.
She began cutting the shirts into short sleeves, using the leftover fabric to make scrunchies and dresses for the Barbies. This way, she can donate matching Barbie dolls and shirts to father-and-daughter duos who come to the store.
“If I see a father and a young daughter together, I’ll tell them, ‘I have something really special for you,’ and ask them to choose which Barbie and T-shirt combination they want,” Lakin said. “Their reactions are always very sweet, they get so happy. A few times the dads will put on the shirt immediately before even leaving the shop.”
Lakin’s work has been therapeutic, she said. It begins with finding the Barbies, which she either buys used at garage sales or are donated by people supportive of her effort.
Most of the time, the Barbies come used and scruffy, so she cleans them and shampoos their hair before designing their dresses and bringing them back to life.
Lakin, who spent decades as a sweater designer, takes her creative process seriously, carefully creating the Barbies’ outfits, whether it’s a classy strapless mini dress or a maxi dress with a crisscross halter top.
“It shows these kids we care that extra amount, that we’re not just giving them sandwiches and water and essential clothes, but it’s an extra special thing, and I think that resonates with them,” Lakin said.
“I get a lot out of it, too. I personally like to hand them out because I love being able to say, ‘I made this for you.’ The smiles and the happiness they give me, it’s moments like that that make it all worthwhile.”
Lakin does her best to source Barbies and dolls besides the stereotypical blondes, so the migrant children get dolls that look more like them. So far, her collection has included dolls in a variety of shapes, sizes and skin colors, even one Barbie with the skin condition vitiligo.
Team TLC NYC runs on donations, and anyone interested in donating to its Amazon wish list can help by finding non-White Barbies for Lakin to makeover with her homemade clothes.
“We rarely get any children that look White, except for one Ukrainian child, but the rest are overwhelmingly Latina. I don’t really think it’s appropriate to be giving blonde Barbies to them,” Lakin said. “I want to give them dolls that look more like them.”
Similar to the message seen in the wildly popular “Barbie” movie, Lakin wants to make sure these dolls don’t enforce stereotypes on these girls but instead remind them of their worth – and the power of their individuality.
Many of these children are unaware they are in the center of a volatile political debate. Unlike most other kids their age, these young migrants have already survived brutal circumstances and will grow up navigating childhood in an unfamiliar place.
While a Barbie doll won’t solve everything, at least for a moment, they can be simply children again.
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