PROVIDENCE — One letter described the delight of taking your “first breath of salty sea air” along Rhode Island’s coastline.
Another letter evoked the “spicy, tomatoey goodness” of the state’s Italian food.
And yet another recounted the sight of bright red sumac cones and the smell of “warm pine needles” on a trail in Chepachet.
Rhode Islanders have taken the time to create 165 handwritten letters welcoming the Afghan evacuees who will soon arrive in the state, following the Aug. 30 withdrawal of the last U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
The letters, which include illustrations by talented artists and smiley faces drawn by young students, were penned as part of the “Dear Rhode Island” program launched by Jessica David and the What Cheer Writers Club. Now, Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island is planning to place the letters in the apartments of Afghan families as they begin arriving in the weeks ahead.
In the letters, some writers reflected on their own arrival in a strange, new land.
“Dear friend from Afghanistan,” one letter began. “I hope you are safe and healthy as you wait to join us in the United States. I came to the US from Argentina in 1962 at age 12, so I understand a little about the feelings of leaving your home and going to a very different, far away place! Many of us are waiting to welcome you and will be helping you as you make the transition to a new place and culture.”
“Dear new Rhode Islander,” another letter began. “Welcome! Home! I know leaving the place you’re from can be sad, scary, and full of anxiety, but I hope that arriving here you’ll start to feel comfort and excitement and, most importantly, HOPE.”
“Hope” is Rhode Island’s official state motto, the letter noted. “It’s a place of new beginnings for many, and our culture and community has been made better and stronger from the additions of many different people coming here over the years, and envisioning a bright future for themselves and their families. I wish that for you.”
Children joined in welcoming the new arrivals.
“What I wish for you and your family is that you live a nice life here, that everyone respects you, and to get a good job,” a student from the Segue Institute for Learning in Central Falls wrote. “Welcome to Rhode Island.”
The letter included photos of Roger Williams Park Zoo, India Point Park, and a Rhode Island beach.
“I am 12 years old and I am in 7th grade. My parents are from Guatemala and Puerto Rico,” another student wrote. “I think you will (enjoy) living here. My favorite places here are the parks, the mall, and the fast food here. I hope you guys find a nice place here and (enjoy) life here and never have to go through the thing you guys went through. Welcome to our home.”
David – a former Rhode Island Foundation executive who is now co-founder and president of a nonprofit called Local Return – said she got the idea from the Instagram account of Pennsylvania’s Second Lady, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, who noted that a Jewish community group in Pittsburgh was collecting letters for Afghan families arriving there.
David immediately thought of the What Cheer Writers Club, a Providence nonprofit that provides co-working space and community events to support writers, illustrators, and podcasters. Along with the club, she had co-founded the “Dear Rhode Island” program during the pandemic – sending thank you letters to health-care workers and writing to home-bound seniors and other isolated people.
So the welcome letters for Afghans seemed like “an obvious idea,” David said. “We had this community that was already activated around writing letters, and here was this great opportunity to use that.”
She reached out to Kathleen Cloutier, executive director of the Dorcas International Institute, and Omar Bah, executive director of the Refugee Dream Center, and they both liked the idea.
So David and the club began using social media and other networks to put out a call. And soon the letters began rolling in – from churches, schools, and everyday Rhode Islanders.
“When I walked in here last weekend and saw the whole pile of them, I literally did cry,” David said. “It’s overwhelming in such a great way.”
She said she has read each of the 165 letters, and she is struck by how warm and welcoming they are. “We don’t see that all the time. Sometimes, you see the negative things,” she said. “But this was just this outpouring of positive thought.”
In short, David said, the letters convey the message that: “We want you to feel welcome, we want you to know you are loved, you are wanted here, there are supports available for you, there is a great community here.”
Jodie Vinson, program manager for the What Cheer Writers Club, said a handwritten letter provides a tactile rather than a virtual message – a form a communication that’s often more meaningful and personal than a text or email.
Plus, the act of writing a letter by hand “asks a person to reflect, to take the time to put their thoughts on paper,” Vinson said. “It not only connects people, it also provides the space and time for reflection on your own situation.”
Vinson hopes the Afghans find comfort in the letters. “We hope they find a sense of warmth and welcome in an unimaginable situation – and hope for a new beginning,” she said.
David said each Afghan evacuee will receive some original letters plus a packet with copies of all 165 messages. “There’s something about the cumulative impact,” she said.
Cloutier said Dorcas International Institute, Rhode Island’s largest refugee resettlement agency, plans to place the letters in the apartments that Afghans will settle in and have a translator read the messages to them.
“I think it really is going to mean a lot to them,” Cloutier said. “Think about anybody coming to a new place and receiving a letter welcoming them – hearing that people want to have you here.”
A dozen Afghan evacuees have already arrived in Rhode Island, and another 250 or so are expected to begin arriving in late October or early November.
Governor Daniel J. McKee wrote to President Joe Biden in August, saying “Rhode Island stands ready to welcome Afghan allies and families eager to seek solace and safety in our state.” Dorcas International Institute received approval through its national counterpart to resettle 150 or more Afghans in Rhode Island, and Catholic Social Services has now received approval to resettle another 100 Afghans here, Cloutier said.
If people want to write letters to the Afghan evacuees, send them to “Dear Rhode Island Welcome Letters,” P.O. Box 5916, Providence, R.I. 02903.