Thousands of masks have been sewn by members of Portland’s Chinese community, and have been donated all across the globe – from China to Portland. Their masks have reached all different communities in Portland, from local firefighters, teachers, postal workers, to the Pacific Islander community and more. Yahong Neirynck and Beilei Zhu are two of the women who have spearheaded, and continued to lead these efforts.
When COVID-19 broke out in China, what was your initial reaction?
Yahong: When it broke out in China, many of us were worried. We knew this virus wouldn’t just stop in China. I think every person in the United States, who has Chinese families, or just Chinese heritage, were already worried. I was frantically looking for masks for my family in Shanghai because my mom is 86 years old. So I was looking at the masks at Miller Paint and I remember, I found the instructions of constructing masks.
You started with sending 65-70 hand sewn masks to your relatives in China. Now that China has begun to stabilize, the U.S. cases started to escalate. As someone of Chinese descent, how do you think the political tension between the US and China affects the pandemic?
Yahong: This whole virus is impacting people’s lives. There’s turbulence between two countries at the political level but people like you and me, we all have a heart. We’re all trying to be a good person, and help society. All these political games at the two country level have very little to do with us.
Since this has gotten much worse in the United States, there’s also this potential turbulence of anti-Chinese sentiment. We love China but we also love the United States. So we decided, why don’t we do something small, but do something that will contribute, not only to the Chinese society for Chinese overseas, but also to people in general. Now we are getting more and more requests for our line of work. It’s uplifting. I look forward to this work and I smile. I work hard and I enjoy it because I’m giving back. And that’s the spirit of this coming to work.
Beilei: For Chinese-Americans, we have two waves. One of our family back home, then here. Instead of being anxious, we decided we would not panic. We decided we would unite to help society. Our mission is to unite the community, not only the Chinese people, but we will unite the winning hands of Asian community to fight against COVID-19 together. We want to use our kindness to work against the racist discrimination and crime, acknowledge that our enemy is a coronavirus only.
Your masks come in all shapes, sizes and colors. You have over 200 volunteers to sew masks to match the faces of children, adults, and nose structures of all kinds. You even continue to garner volunteers every week, and have a goal to make over 10,000 masks. Tell us about the logistical aspects of producing and distributing so many masks.
Beilei: Our team structure is unique. It’s very structured. We have a planning team, a technical team to design the best model, innovation team, and artist team as well. Every mask is a piece of loving heart behind it because of selfless volunteers.
Yahong: It been an evolving process. We make over 100 masks a week. Our team shifted focus to be able to accomodate kids. Everyone on the team pitched in for materials.
Beilei: Many volunteers stay up late every night. It’s always our wish to extend our hands to children. This is something really serving communities.
What do you want the community to take away from your leadership?
Yahong: In every single crisis there is an amazing opportunity for individuals and communities to speak up and do something together. The power of gathering a group of people with the same mission, value, same heart and love is simply uplifting and amazing, and I believe after the virus, this spirit is now alive and growing and blossoming and we’re going to do great things together.
Beilei: Only during the crisis will you see true love. And this crisis we’re seeing, when we call out something, people start to unite. This is so unique. Many of us don’t have a habit of volunteering in the community. Maybe this crisis can change our thinking of giving back. Together, united we are stronger.
Yahong and Beilei’s Call to Action
Work from the heart. When you give more, you feel better.
You can help Yahong and Beilei on their “Journey to 10,000 Masks Made with Love” by donating to support them here.
This blog post is part of the API Womxn in Leadership series to commemorate May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. This series is also under the banner of #CourageDuringCOVID, a larger project highlighting API Oregonians doing meaningful and radical work to protect one another. Learn more about our Courage During COVID series. This programming content brought to you by APANO Communities United Fund, a 501(C)(3) nonprofit organization.