All hands on deck: Enumclaw family starts program to aid, encourage incoming Afghan refugees

The backpack program seeks to give Afghan kids something to hold on to when they arrive in the U.S.

Thousands of Afghanistan refugees are expected to arrive in the greater Seattle area over the next few weeks, and your neighbors on the Plateau could use your help making them feel welcome.

Enumclaw author and attorney Julie Reece-DeMarco and her family want to provide backpacks full of school supplies and letters of encouragement to families fleeing the collapse of the former Afghanistan government.

Amid the United States’ withdrawal, the Taliban has reasserted control over the country, including its capitol Kabul, creating a crisis situation for tens of thousands of displaced Afghans who are trying to relocate to the United States. Thousands of them will likely make their way to our part of Washington, according to news reports.

Many of those refugees will come with children, and as long as they’re staying in the area, they’ll be attending local schools, as well. So beyond the plane tickets, rides from the airport and home rentals, some needs are as simple as colored pencils and spiral-bound notebooks.

“The whole community is trying to rally behind this and make sure that we welcome the kids coming here with nothing, and give them something to hold on to,” Reece-DeMarco said.

The project, called the Afghan Refugee Student Backpack Program, was born out of a car ride.

Reece-Demarco’s mother, a teacher, once shared a story about a little girl in her classroom whose home life was unstable. That girl, used to being yanked out of school, had “one constant in a shifting world” — her backpack and school supplies, which she carried home each day in case she wouldn’t be coming back.

That memory, and a conversation with her own daughters in the car, inspired Reece-DeMarco and her kids to try to give the children of Afghan refugees that same small comfort.

“To help ease their transition into become a part of our country, we thought … (creating something) they could hold on to, that, with all this transition, they could claim as their own, was super important,” said Sophia, a senior at Enumclaw High School.

Rather than looking at the unfolding crisis, thinking “That’s so sad” and taking oneself out of the picture, the sisters said the refugee situation can spur someone to instead think “What can I do?”

“I just think it’s our natural response as humans, when you see someone who’s struggling, you just want to help,” said Natalie, a sophomore at Enumclaw High. “I think that’s what we were feeling in the car.”

Those interested can donate individual supplies or put a backpack together themselves or with a larger group. A list of supplies needed is attached to this story, and a template for notecards from kids and families to the refugee families will be available on the online version of this story.

The families are arriving soon, and school supplies are quickly disappearing as retailers flip their fall inventory. So the deadline to get the backpacks in is Sept. 18.

So far, the family has already received about 50 backpacks and hundreds of school supplies.

Reece-DeMarco is working with World Relief Seattle out of Kent, which helps refugees and other immigrants rebuild when they arrive in a new country. The Christian humanitarian organization is already collecting welcome kits for families and agreed to distribute Reece-DeMarco’s backpacks, too.

Several local businesses are starting to get involved, Reece-DeMarco said, including Gamblin Motors in Enumclaw, which will be the drop-off point for backpacks. A few local grocery stores have kicked in to the project, and other collaborations are in the works too, Reece-DeMarco said. And the DeMarco sisters are getting the high school interact club involved as well.

As many as 6,000 Afghan refugees could come to Washington state over the next few months, according to a KOMO News interview with Washington State Refugee Coordinator Sarah Peterson.

Efforts are ongoing to help those refugees at the county legislative level, too. King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, whose district includes the Enumclaw Plateau, introduced legislation Aug. 27 to help Afghan refugees settle in the Pacific Northwest.

The motion would create a planning committee to support the placement of refugees and special visa holders from Afghanistan who have already been vetted by the federal government and who will make their new home in the region. In addition to determining and responding to needs of resettlement agencies, the committee would be responsible for performing outreach to ensure Afghan refugees know what resources are available to help them.

Dunn also submitted a letter last week to the Executive to “begin a conversation of how King County can prepare to welcome these refugees, many who have served as allies alongside American soldiers, with open arms.”

For other groups supporting Afghan refugees, check out:

World Relief Seattle:

The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service volunteering:

Jewish Family Service:

Diocese of Olympia’s Refugee Resettlement Office:

The Afghan Health Initiative:

How to join the backpack program

To put together a backpack, include some or all of the following items in a backpack:

Number two pencils. Red, blue or black ballpoint pens. Paper. Wide or college-ruled spiral notebooks. Folders. Crayons. Colored pencils. Markers. Pencil sharpeners. Glue sticks. Pencil pouches or cases. Erasers. Highlighters. Index cards. Watercolor paints. A lunch box or bag. Handwritten notes of love, acceptance and encouragement.

Then, bring that backpack to the Gamblin Motors dealership at 1047 Roosevelt Avenue East anytime up to September 18th.