Culturally-Sensitive Dolls Welcome Refugee Children to US | The Center for Victims of Torture

Culturally-Sensitive Dolls Welcome Refugee Children to US

Thursday, September 7, 2017
Gail Harvey's business is the doll business. The CVT volunteer and donor sews clothing for collector dolls typically purchased by adults, but has long been fascinated by the doll as a toy and its role in a child’s development. “Over the years, I’ve acquired a great appreciation for the lasting effect of doll play,” says Gail. “Dolls do more for young children than other toys. They serve a purpose.”
CVT clinicians agree. According to Kathleen O’Donnell, social worker with CVT’s St. Paul Healing Center, dolls help children cultivate nurturing skills and develop self-soothing strategies. She notes that playing with dolls facilitates early opportunities to practice empathy. Often, however, the families Kathleen works with don’t have toys. Many displaced children don’t. This reality set in for Gail when she saw a news story on the current refugee crisis. “I figured that a doll is probably one of the last things refugee families could afford. Then I knew what I needed to do.” She launched Don’t Cry… I’m Here, a grassroots project that donates culturally-specific dolls to refugee children in Minnesota.
Don’t Cry… I’m Here grew faster than Gail ever imagined; the group now comprises 450 volunteers. Gail's process is simple. When she receives requests for donations, she inquires about the cultural background of her recipients and finds photos of traditional clothing from their home countries. Then she shares the photos with her volunteers, who purchase the dolls with their own money and dress each one appropriately. The dolls are packaged in hand-sewn tote bags that include culturally-sensitive apparel; patriotic red, white and blue apparel; pajamas and blankets; and a welcome note handwritten by elementary school-aged children.
Gail and her volunteers make culturally-sensitive outfits for Muslim African dolls, Muslim Middle Eastern dolls and Karen dolls. Recently, the project donated a shipment of dolls to families participating in CVT’s Healing Hearts program, which provides on-site mental health care to Karen refugees at Saint Paul’s HealthEast Roselawn clinic. It’s estimated that outside of Southeast Asia, Minnesota has the largest population of Karen from Burma. Many have resettled in Twin Cities east metro communities. 
When Kathleen O’ Donnell saw the dolls, she was immediately struck by the details of their dress. The patterns matched the clothing worn by her Karen clients and their children. While she's used to helping clients access programs to obtain toys, most of the dolls she encounters represent the dominant white culture. She hopes these thoughtfully prepared dolls from Don’t Cry… I’m Here will signify to Karen children that their culture is equally valued. "That’s been my mission from the start," concludes Gail. "I wanted to give kids a doll that looks and dresses like they do." 
By Sabrina Crews, CVT marketing and communications specialist
Photos by Gail Harvey


We heal victims of torture through unique services and professional care worldwide.

Read More


We strengthen partners who heal torture survivors and work to prevent torture.

Read More


We advocate for the protection & care of torture survivors and an end to torture.

Read More