Peals of laughter split the air as children of all ages ran around the grassy area behind Granite Junior High School. Younger children gravitated toward the face painting area, while some of the older ones tested out their high jump. All of them were part of Utah’s refugee community, a community now approaching 70,000 people.

Hassmia came to Granite Junior High on Monday night with her two small children in tow. Using a combination of newly learned English, she told me she was from Afghanistan and had only been in the United States for four months. Her oldest son will start kindergarten in a couple of weeks. As they selected a backpack out of the thousands donated to Utah Refugee Connection, she kept asking, “Is it OK?” as she touched backpacks, trying to find one small enough to not topple her little boy. When asked what school he would be attending, she shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. “New. I am new.”

Hassmia and her two children were two of the thousands of refugees who came to Back-to-School night last Monday evening. The backpacks came from donations to the Utah Refugee Connection, and there were a number of other sponsors as well. Ken Garff and Best Seat in the House sponsored a carnival on the school grounds, complete with games, bouncy houses, face painting and pizza. Nearly 1,000 frozen Creamies were handed out by the Utah Department of Public Safety and the folks from Gygi made cotton candy until surely their arms ached.

Eye Care 4 Kids provided 218 free screenings, gave away 144 pairs of blue light glasses and signed 21 people up for their mobile clinic. The Salt Lake County Library distributed 1,800 vouchers for free shoes and Granite School District offered the use of their school and the grounds at no cost. More than 50 volunteers came to help guide families through the backpack choosing process, with a least as many more volunteers outside.

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Peythie Chuol runs to her family with her new backpack during Refugee Back to School Night at Granite Park Junior High in South Salt Lake on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Utah’s melting pot

Within the boundaries of Granite School District live three-fourths of all refugee students in the state, speaking more than 100 languages. The Back-to-School night event showcased some of that diversity. There were refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan, from Sudan and Somalia, from Syria, Iraq and Venezuela, waiting outside in the summer heat for their turn to enter the school.

According to Ben Horsley, chief of staff and spokesman for Granite School District, at least two of the elementary schools in the district are made up primarily of refugee students. The students at those two schools, James E. Moss Elementary and Lincoln Elementary, show what’s possible when people look for commonalities and not differences. Horsley said that students there are often newly arrived, don’t speak English well and are often new to schooling in general. They metaphorically and literally link arms and learn together.

Be a mentor and a friend

There are ongoing needs and opportunities to help Utah’s refugee community. Utah Refugee Connection has ongoing needs for teen kits, personal kits and laundry/home cleaning kits. There will be a fall costume party and a winter celebration, as well as cultural nights for the broader community to learn more about our new neighbors.

Both Amy Dott Harmer and Horsley are grateful for the community outreach, including donations. There is more we could do, however. Harmer said that Utahns are great about giving to refugees (for example, the backpacks), but we could get better at receiving from refugees. We could learn about their culture, their language, their food, their dances and also their hopes and dreams for their families. We can go into their churches, support the refugee Scout troops and basketball teams and let them teach us.

Both Harmer and Horsley told me that refugees need a mentor and a friend, someone who can check in on them, to help them learn and function within their new and unfamiliar environment. “You would be amazed,” Horsley said, “at the questions we get that we take for granted.” “Where is the grocery store? How do I get to the grocery store? What is snow and what are snow days?” Having a person they can reach out to for the answers to those and other questions could be invaluable.

Every person who lives in Utah should feel like they belong, and refugees are no exception. Researcher and bestselling author Brené Brown speaks to this universal human need: “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache.”

Hopefully, last Monday night’s back-to-school event helped Utah’s refugee community feel like they belong. Let’s keep going.

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy.