AUSTIN (KXAN) — After this summer’s expanded Taliban presence and military takeover in Afghanistan, a projected 1,020 refugees are expected to resettle in Central Texas in fiscal year 2021-22. One group of local middle schoolers are working to welcome these newcomers with open arms, one letter at a time.
A class of sixth graders at Round Rock ISD’s Deerpark Middle School shared letters with the Refugee Services of Texas to help welcome new residents into the community. RSTX and local animator Kristen Maxwell collaborated to bring the letters to life, in hopes of shedding light on the letter’s sentiments via a different creative medium.
Maxwell specializes in animation for educational videos and had been familiar with RSTX and its services amid the Afghan crisis. After reaching out to them on ways to support the organization’s efforts, staff presented the letters to him and asked if he could find a way to visualize them.
“These kids, you know, their hearts are on their sleeves, and they just are not held back at all,” he said. “And [the letters have] just got this really sort of upfront, raw, emotional aspect to it that is difficult to get from anywhere else.”
For Maxwell, he said he approached the animations as a reinterpretation of the letters and the sentiments students conveyed, while still staying true to their core messages. Marrying his skills with the empathy of those students, he said it was an immensely rewarding experiences.
When it comes to refugee crises, he said the only thing separating his own family from incoming refugees are the set of circumstances each are dealt. That nuance, he said, was addressed by these young students, and in ways he didn’t necessarily anticipate heading into the project.
“I was shocked in a way because like, wow, these people, they’re eloquent, and they’re speaking to things that are….it’s not like you would imagine it’s a kid other than maybe the handwriting or something,” he said, later adding, “The emotional stuff that resonates with people? I mean, all of that was there with the kids and the way that they wrote things.”
Many of the letters written outlined things for newcomers to experience here in Austin: trying Texas barbecue, attending a University of Texas at Austin football game, visits down to Lady Bird Lake and even a trip or two to H-E-B. But plenty also touched on the emotional elements that come with leaving one’s home and starting over at a new place, and shared well wishes for refugees on their new journey in America.
“It’s funny and kind of adorable and heartwarming, because, again, it’s so earnest,” Maxwell said, smiling.