A little over two weeks ago, Amy Dott Harmer, the executive director of Utah Refugee Connection, was looking at a stack of 100 backpacks and worried about getting enough by the beginning of August to meet the needs of thousands of refugee children in the state.

Today, she is emotional when she says that they have more than met their goal to gather 5,000 filled backpacks. “It’s been a beautiful outpouring of generosity,” she said. These backpacks say, “You are welcome here. We are happy to have you in our community. We want you to succeed.” 

On Wednesday alone, 1,695 filled backpacks were dropped off. The cars just kept coming, some dropping off backpacks by the dozens and others just a few, but they added up to thousands.

Each backpack contains supplies needed for school — paper, pencils, pens, a binder and a notebook — the kinds of things that are universally needed at school.

The most important thing they contained, however, could not be seen. They each contained love.

Zinab, from Sudan, left, gets an apron from Amy Dott Harmer, executive director for the Utah Refugee Connection, at the Serve Refugees Sharehouse.
Zinab, from Sudan, left, gets an apron from Amy Dott Harmer, executive director for the Utah Refugee Connection, at the Serve Refugees Sharehouse in South Salt Lake on Thursday, July 13, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News
With your help, Utah’s refugee children can find school less scary

Volunteer Katie Graham was there to meet the cars as they came through. “It was so sweet to meet many people as they brought their donations in. Some people had had parties in their neighborhood ... and brought in 75, even 150 backpacks,” she said on social media. She also said it was particularly tender to see people who brought in just a few. One grandmother, she said, brought in six backpacks — one in honor of each of her grandchildren.

Having a new backpack might seem like a small thing, but this seemingly small thing goes a long way in helping refugee children have confidence, as they go to school for perhaps the first time, not speaking the language and not knowing “the system.” Having new supplies, in a new backpack, can give a needed boost to a child’s sense of belonging and decrease their anxiety.

On Monday, June 7, those backpacks will be distributed at the Refugee Back-to-School Night at Granite Park Jr. High. There will also be free food, games and resources available for families. There is a sign up for volunteers 18 years and older, who are still needed to help at the event. Other sponsors of the event include Granite School District’s Family Engagement Centers, Ken Garff and Best Seat in the House.

Granite School District has the largest population of refugee students in the state — roughly 75% of all refugee children attend Granite schools, speaking over 100 languages. One of the programs that Granite School District offers is the “Tumaini Welcome and Transition Program” for newly arrived refugee children and their families.

Tumaini, which means “hope” in Swahili, offers immediate school immersion for the student, with a liaison for the family, a peer leader for the student and constant communication as the children begin transitioning to a new culture. Parents are taught computer skills, given access to interpreters and introduced to local family, community engagement centers (including Utah Refugee Connection) and other refugee families in the community. The focus, says the Tumaini webpage, is on “culture transition, academic skills and social immersion at school.”

Children’s backpacks are being collected as part of a back-to-school drive at the Serve Refugees Sharehouse in South Salt Lake on Thursday, July 13, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News
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The cultural piece can be critically important. Too often, we make assumptions about how much our culture is familiar to everyone when it simply is not. When my husband and I adopted some of our children who were already school-aged, we ran headlong into cultural issues, including assessment tests with a distinct Western bias. We were told one daughter, adopted at age 7, was significantly mentally disabled because she performed so poorly on her non-verbal assessment. She was not. She may not have known how to count to 10 or even how to hold a pencil, but she did know how to grind corn and help butcher a cow, skills that were necessary for her in her young life. As her mother and her advocate, I fully recognize and appreciate that I did not have the additional challenge of not knowing English, or the Utah school system or what my rights were as her parent.

Hats off to Granite School District for recognizing how difficult it can be to integrate into an all-new environment and who are taking a holistic approach. Hats off especially to the parents and children who are doing the heavy lifting of learning and integrating.

The incredible donations of backpacks full of love (and new school supplies) help make that heavy lift just a little bit lighter.

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy.

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