Afghan children and families gather at a resource fair on March 27 in Lynnwood.

Afghan children and families gather at a resource fair on March 27 in Lynnwood.

In many languages, Snohomish County schools welcome Afghan students

More than 40 started classes here in March. For many, it’s their first school since fleeing the Taliban takeover.

LYNNWOOD — About 15 Afghan families filled a large room at the Edmonds School District in late March to learn about life in Snohomish County.

Interpreters translated into Dari, Pashto, Farsi and Urdu. Community Transit gave out bus passes. Sno-Isle Libraries offered books, library cards and laptops. The Lynnwood Police Department showed them how to strap in a car seat. The families also received information on local recreation programs and free preschool.

Afghan refugees have been arriving here since last August, after many thousands fled a Taliban takeover. Some families awaited resettlement at U.S. military bases and shelters.

The Edmonds School District learned in early March it would receive 27 Afghan students. Meanwhile, the Everett School District got ready for 17 students.

Children who escaped a war zone will now grow up in Snohomish County. For many, it’s the first U.S. school they will attend.

A large group of Afghan families arrived about a month ago, said Van Dinh-Kuno, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest, based in Everett.

“It’s a huge influx,” she said. “Nobody can prepare for this kind of thing.”

Her organization has booked hotel rooms for families and tried to find them apartments. Funding comes from the county government, including more than $2 million funnelled here in January from the state’s Afghan assistance program.

To register children for school, district employees visited the hotel where the families were staying. Students were in classes the following week.

Sally Guzman, Edmonds School District family and community engagement coordinator, said the district put together the resource fair on March 27 to cover many topics in one place.

They gathered at the Edmonds Hub — a space the district opened during the pandemic to support unsheltered students. The hub now provides after-school academic support, a pantry and laundry services.

At the fair, Afghan families were surveyed about their needs.

“I think we just learned that it’s a huge learning curve,” Guzman said. “We need to go slower and tackle one topic at a time. They are very receptive. They enjoyed it.”

In some ways, she understands what the families are going through. At 5 years old, Guzman came to the United States from Peru. Those first few years were “a blur,” she said.

“You don’t understand the language or culture,” Guzman said. “You’re going through cultural shock and aren’t able to communicate any of that shock.”

Most students are attending Spruce Elementary School, Meadowdale Middle School and Mountlake Terrace High School. The district already has a Multilingual Learners program that serves more than 3,000 students. Guzman said students are tested for English proficiency and receive language support as needed.

“(Afghan) students typically have no one or maybe one person who speaks the language they do,” she said.

Food is another challenge. Many Afghan families have had questions about which foods are halal, or permitted under Islamic law.

“There’s been a lot of learning around food and understanding halal for our district,” she said.

Guzman said she hopes to make it easier for families to navigate the American education system.

“If my family had a program like this when I was in school, I think it would have been easier,” she said.

The Everett School District also had a quick turnaround to enroll 17 Afghan students, said Chris Fulford, the district’s director of categorical programs.

The district expects many more Afghan students to enroll.

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers expected 1,200 Afghans to resettle here after Taliban forces seized control of the country last August. More than 300 arrived between October and January.

The goal is to keep students attending the same school this year, even if they move to a different neighborhood, Fulford said. Many students qualify for services under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, he said.

“There are some protections so they are not getting bounced from school to school to school while they don’t have stable housing,” Fulford said.

Fulford said Afghan students seemed eager to get back to school. He recalled one middle school boy’s reaction after registering for classes.

“His face lit up and he took off down the hall,” he said. “I think there is a genuine excitement to get back to some normalcy and routine.”

Some students can already speak English. Fulford saw two girls put on new backpacks full of school supplies and give a thumbs up and a message in English: “We’re ready.”

Jacqueline Allison: 425-339-3434; Twitter: @jacq_allison.

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