Amherst fifth graders plan community event to help refugees

  • Fort River Elementary School

Staff Writer
Published: 5/25/2023 3:13:34 PM
Modified: 5/25/2023 3:13:18 PM

AMHERST — A native of Afghanistan who worked for the U.S. government in his home country before departing more than 18 months ago when the Taliban took control is now confronting the challenges of living a new life in the United States.

Still worried about his family and how to eventually reunite with them, the Afghan earlier this year related his situation to fifth graders at Fort River School in a civics literacy class taught by Tim Austin.

Maizy Lonergan is among the students who found inspiration from the evacuee and wanted to find ways to help him and other refugees, especially those coming to Amherst and the region.

“We hope our work can make a difference in our community,” Maizy said.

In the final weeks of the school year, the class has decided to focus on assisting and publicizing the plight of those who flee from war-torn areas of the world and other violence.

On Saturday, the class is putting on the Refugee Awareness Community Event at the school, from 1:30 to 4 p.m., that will include obstacle courses set up for both big kids and little kids, information about what people can do to volunteer and literature from organizations, such as the Welcome Home Refugees Resettlement Program run by Catholic Charities of Springfield.

The idea of the obstacle course is to creatively and symbolically show challenges, such as cardboard box tunnels that students are making, with accompanying signs explaining how each part of the course matches what has happened on the journey undertaken by a refugee.

“It will be based on what refugees might experience if they come to the United States,” Symantha Green said of the design of the courses.

“Signs will say what each obstacle represents,” Maizy Lonergan said.

The decision to focus on evacuees comes in response to answering a question posed by Austin about what social change the students would like to see happen.

Maizy and Symantha were joined by classmate Gil McCollum in creating a brief Flipboard video to advocate for their cause, observing that everyone should have a right to a safe place to live and to escape war. “Every group made a video looking to convince the class to do that thing,” Maizy said.

Their cause competed against others, such as addressing climate change and promoting food justice, before Austin said the class came to a consensus about a project that could make an immediate impact on the lives.

Once decided, they read various articles about the problems to learn more and build a background and knowledge on the issue.

Two of the students also have ties to refugees. “For a lot of kids it hits home in a real way,” Austin said.

So far, the work has also included launching what they call a necessities drive that filled bins with hygiene products. Symantha said that response for products from soap to toothbrushes was a success.

As some of the students do social media pushes, others craft the cardboard into the tunnels.

Emory Albertson showed a sketch of the courses that will include a “floor is lava” challenge and strategically placed jump ropes, hoops and cones, as well as hopscotch, ropes to limbo under and crab walking. Emory said that there will be prize tables at the end of the courses.

They are also sending out pictures of the progress and reminding families of the event, contacting local businesses about donations they could make to support refugees and even joined Monte Belmonte on his The Fabulous 413 podcast on New England Public Media.

In a letter to the editor, the students wrote, “we hope refugees arrive in our community and get the support that reflects the welcoming place in which we live.”

The hope is that the impact will go beyond what takes place Saturday. That is why they have formed a school-based Circle of Care that will be ready to assist refugees.

Keegan Pyle, the program coordinator for the resettlement program, said in a statement that the organization appreciates the help to rebuild lives. “The students are trying their best to accomplish their campaign to help refugees that come to Amherst or other communities,” Pyle said.

Margot Greenwald, who volunteers with the resettlement program, said, “When you volunteer to help refugees who have been forced to flee their native country in order to not be murdered by their fellow, but radicalized, countrymen, you learn what true terror is.”

The project also fits with the “We Choose Love” motto at the school, notes Principal Tamera Sullivan-Daley. “Choosing Love means to act with compassion, respect, courage, and with a justice-mindset,” Sullivan-Daley said.

While a lot has gone into the project, the students say it has been worthwhile.

“It’s fun to have something to work hard on,” Symantha said

“It’s been fun to work on something different,” Maizy said. “It’s fun to help the community and hopefully make a difference in the community.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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