A year after evacuation, Afghans are establishing deeper roots in Minnesota – Star Tribune

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When Zahra Wahidy immigrated to Minnesota in 2022, the only other Afghan she knew was her younger brother.

Like other new Afghan refugees in the Twin Cities, she decided to meet people at the Afghan Cultural Society in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. “I didn’t know any of them,” she said.

Then she spotted a former co-worker from Kabul. “I just felt so emotional,” she said.

A year later, Wahidy has established roots in Minneapolis. She organizes mental health programming for women at the Afghan Cultural Society, and she lives in the same apartment as her former co-worker from Kabul.

Wahidy belongs to one of the fastest growing immigrant populations in Minnesota, according to U.S. Census data released this September. The Taliban’s takeover of the Afghan government in August 2021 sparked an unprecedented evacuation of Afghan civilians, resulting in one of the largest airlifts in history.

According to the the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, 332 people in Minnesota in 2018 reported being born in Afghanistan, a number that stayed fairly consistent for several years. But by 2022, that number jumped to 1,107 people.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services has reported that even more Afghans live in the state. More than 1,300 evacuees came to Minnesota between September 2021 and September 2022, according to the department.

As Minnesota’s Afghan refugee population has grown, the Cultural Society — which began as a cultural and educational organization — has taken on the role of a refugee resettlement agency. The society, which opened its first office and community space in 2022, helps Afghan evacuees start new lives in Minnesota with the help of state agencies and other local nonprofits.

TBS Mart, an Afghan grocery store, and Afghan Darbar restaurant opened in Bloomington last July. Rizwan Qazizada, of Bloomington, a member of the family that owns and manages the two businesses, said Afghan Darbar is “fresh and it’s authentic. … There was a need for the food that we are serving.” The restaurant works with local agencies to provide food for Afghan refugees in need.

For Wahidy, the restaurant and store are signs the Afghan community is thriving in Minnesota.

“When you’re seeing that the population is growing, and you can find our food at the store and go to our restaurant with the food that we like, it makes us happy,” she said.

Other states, such as California and Virginia, have larger Afghan populations than Minnesota. But Wahidy said she has noticed more Afghan refugees moving here from elsewhere in the United States.

“There are job opportunities. It’s also affordable to live here, to build a life here,” she said. She granted that the weather “is a little challenging.” However, she said, “I like it here. … The people here are so friendly. I think I will stay here.”

Wahidy, who had been working in Afghanistan for a nonprofit that contracted with the U.S. government, evacuated Afghanistan in 2021 with two of her brothers to a refugee camp in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where they lived for 10 months. “We were not sure about our destiny,” she said. “Everything was unclear for us.”

She landed in Virginia in 2022 and lived in a hotel for 25 days before moving to Minnesota, where a third brother had already settled with the help of a host family.

Wahidy’s family is now scattered across the world. One brother went to Canada, and the other stayed in Virginia. One sister lives in Bangladesh. But her parents and two younger sisters are still in Kabul.

“They don’t feel safe there,” she said. “They want to leave Afghanistan. We’re trying to find a way, but for now we cannot help them.”

Wahidy began applied for a special immigrant visa in 2021, but her case is still pending. She’s also seeking asylum and has found that process moving slightly faster; if granted asylum, she can apply for a green card after a year and then sponsor the rest of her family members to come to the United States.

Wahidy, who studied educational psychology in Kabul, now runs a 10-week mental health program for women at the Afghan Cultural Society.

“We are trying to help them cope with their stress,” she said. “In Afghanistan, they were living with a lot of community, a lot of communication with your relatives. But here, they are alone.”

The group meets every Saturday to share their experiences, meet new people, obtain mental health resources, and participate in activities such as yoga, photography or embroidery. The society also provides child care and transportation.

“It’s good to see people. At the start of the program, they don’t know each other,” Wahidy said. “By the end of the program, they’re exchanging contact information, making friends.”

About the partnership

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for a free newsletter to receive Sahan’s stories in your inbox.

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