In North Adams and Williamstown, a warm welcome for Afghan refugees
North Adams — A group of local elementary school students and their teachers get closer to primary sources, much to their collective delight. In some ways, the recent flurry of correspondence – between 5th and 6th graders in Brayton Elementary School and an Afghan family who have relocated to nearby Williamstown – harkens back to a bygone era, when pen pals and writing letters on paper were popular pastimes. On the other hand, their exchange is very steeped in current challenges and the timeless qualities needed to overcome them. Either way, a hands-on approach to learning allowed the most unlikely conversations to happen.
“We started talking [as a team] on creative and quirky ways to get students out of the community without physically being in the community,” teacher assistant Molly Polk told The Edge. Fueled by an “understanding of [the Brayton community’s] long history of community service that has been thwarted by COVID,” Polk contacted Bridget Spann, First Congregational Church Williamstown HOST team member responsible for relocating Afghan families, and suggested an exchange of letters.
The Brayton students got straight to work, writing words of encouragement and suggestions for things to do in the area (among them, visiting the MASS MoCA; swimming, fishing and camping at Lake Windsor; exploring Uno Park; eat at the Moonlight Diner; visit the children’s section at the North Adams Public Library and take a trip to Jack’s Hot Dog Stand).
But the overarching message was, “Welcome to the Berkshires. We’re glad you’re here. Other sentiments included:
“I’d love to welcome you to America…I hope you settle in well and find yourself enjoying yourself here.”
“Hope you have a great time here. Massachusetts is a beautiful place!”
“I’ve lived here all my life (12 years) and it’s wonderful here.”
“Bring a coat because it is very cold here! You will also need snow pants, a hat and gloves.
What began as welcome letters over the winter eventually grew into a full-fledged program unit that addressed a myriad of elements. “We’re finding that kids are struggling to think outside of themselves,” said Brayton Elementary principal Carrie Wallace, citing the importance of social-emotional learning opportunities amid ongoing COVID challenges. “It was a great opportunity for [students] thinking outside the classroom,” Wallace said, noting both increased student interest and engagement.
From the perspective of Massachusetts curriculum executives, letter writing is never a stretch. The activity is intended for students in 5th and 6th grade, who regularly practice writing meaningful, coherent and grammatically correct texts. And while Afghanistan isn’t part of the world they study in terms of geography or social studies, this type of immersive project “bridges social studies and ELA. [English Language Arts]an area where educators are still looking to connect in meaningful ways. “Let’s find out where they come from, write to them and tell them about us,” Wallace said, emphasizing socio-emotional and subject-specific learning in one.
The letters, offering equal parts hospitality and sound advice, led to other unexpected results. “It felt like their words needed to be translated, and they got messages that needed to be translated as well, which was meaningful for the kids,” Wallace said. Polk spoke about core qualities — including resilience, respect and responsibility — as three-term students “talked and thought about how to embody.” Exchanging letters and, by extension, learning someone else’s story took the abstract and made it more concrete. “It was a direct way for the students to see the impact of their kindness in a very tangible way,” Polk said, pointing to the hyper-local place where they landed — in the nearby town.
“They really came out on their own, which isn’t always the easiest thing for [5th and] 6th graders to do,” Wallace said. And when the Afghan family responded, the students’ efforts were bolstered.
“Your writing has given us a lot of hope.”
“We are happy to live here.”
“Do your lessons well, my friend!”
These responses, in addition to providing affirmation, highlighted an important similarity among cultural differences. All Afghan families who have resettled in the Berkshires are currently enrolled in English learning classes, regardless of age. They too are students [which is] particularly meaningful,” Polk said.
On April 1, the students received a thank you letter from the Williamstown HOST team. In addition to many thanks, more multicultural information was shared: “Like many other Afghans, this family was evacuated from Afghanistan last August as the Taliban took control of the country. They fled Afghanistan because they were working with the US government, which put them in danger once the Taliban took over… The family is happy to be safe in the US, but also very sad after leaving his country and his family members who are still in Afghanistan… This family has a habit of having meals while sitting on a carpet and using only their right hand to eat instead of utensils. Many meals come with a flatbread (similar to naan) which is useful for picking up food… This family is from Afghanistan’s Khost province, bordering Pakistan. They speak Pashto and one of the family members also speaks some Urdu. Now they are learning English, which is not an easy language to learn, mainly because they also need to learn a new alphabet. The two official languages of Afghanistan, Dari and Pashto, are both written with the Arabic alphabet.
The timing couldn’t be more propitious. In a month marked by Christians and Jews celebrating Easter and Passover respectively, Muslims celebrate Ramadan, named after the ninth holiest month in the Islamic calendar. Across Afghanistan, families honor this celebration with fasting, reflection, charity and prayer. Because it is based on the lunar calendar, it occurs each year at a different time in the Gregorian calendar. This year in the United States, Ramadan began on the evening of Saturday April 2 and will end with Eid al-Fitr, the feast of breaking the fast, on May 2.
Brayton students enjoyed reading a lovely picture book, “Lailah’s Lunch Box: A Ramadan Story” by Reem Faruqi, to learn more about the experience of a young girl celebrating Ramadan for the first time, far from her home country after moving to the United States. As these students know firsthand, his themes are both timely and timeless.
Amid the stress of being resettled to the United States following an abrupt and traumatic exit from Afghanistan, this family felt supported and welcomed by the kind gestures of these students, said Spann, who from his point of view as a HOST member, found it “so touching”. and inspiring as students reach out to the family to say “welcome, we’re glad you’re here!” At present, portions of the correspondence are on display in the community meeting room of First Congregational Church Williamstown.
Rumor has it Brayton students haven’t signed yet. “It was a wonderful and hopeful exchange that we hope will continue,” Polk said.
Meanwhile, Salam Alaikum – or “peace be upon you” in Arabic.
REMARK: A benefit concert for Afghan families who have resettled in Berkshire County is planned for Friday, April 29 at 7 p.m. Enjoy an evening of music and poetry at First Church of Christ, located at 27 East St. in Pittsfield. The suggested donation is $10 or more; all funds will go to the Berkshire Resettlement Fund of Western Massachusetts Jewish Family Services.