Minnesota Afghan community establishes deep roots – Sahan Journal

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

Like many new Afghan refugees in the Twin Cities, she decided to meet new people at an event at the Afghan Cultural Society in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

“There were a lot of Afghans, but I didn’t know any of them,” said Wahidy, 31. 

Then, she saw a former coworker from Kabul at the same event. 

“Oh my god,” she said of the moment, “I just felt so emotional.”

A year later, Wahidy has established roots in Minneapolis. She lives a walkable distance from the Afghan Cultural Society, where she organizes mental health programming for Afghan women. She also moved into the same apartment building as her former coworker.

Wahidy is a member of one of the fastest growing immigrant populations in Minnesota, according to U.S. Census data released in September 2023. The Taliban’s takeover of the Afghan government in August 2021 sparked an unprecedented emergency evacuation of Afghan civilians. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans left their home country in one of the largest airlifts in history. 

The U.S. Census’ annual American Community Survey reports social, housing, and economic data for various demographic groups in the United States. According to the survey, in 2018, 332 people in Minnesota 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 reported that even more Afghans are living in Minnesota than the Census Bureau reports. More than 1,300 evacuees came to Minnesota between September 2021 and September 2022, according to the department. The American Community Survey randomly selects some Minnesota addresses to survey, and those households are legally required to respond.

Sahan Journal broke down the data and will be profiling some communities that saw dramatic growth in Minnesota since 2018.

As the Afghan refugee population grew, the Afghan Cultural Society, which started off as a cultural and educational organization, took on the role of a refugee resettlement agency. By October 2022, it opened its first-ever office and community space. The society works to help Afghan evacuees start their new lives in Minnesota with the help of state agencies and other local nonprofits.

Both an Afghan grocery store and restaurant also opened in Bloomington last July. TBS Mart on Portland Avenue is next door to a new restaurant called Afghan Darbar. Bloomington resident Rizwan Qazizada is part of the family that owns and manages the store and restaurant. 

“It’s fresh and it’s authentic. It’s not like a fast food restaurant,” Qazizada said. “There was a need for the food that we are serving.”

Qazizada, who has lived in Minnesota for 10 years, said he often sees new customers coming into the restaurant and store. The restaurant also 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,” Wahidy said. 

Wahidy is especially tapped into the local community through her work with the Afghan Cultural Society. Despite the fact that states like California and Virginia have larger Afghan populations, Wahidy has noticed more Afghan refugees moving from elsewhere in the United States to Minnesota.

“It’s good to build a new life in Minnesota,” she said. “There are job opportunities; it’s also affordable to live here, to build a life here, than the big city.”

“The weather is a little challenging, but I like it here. I went to Arizona, New York, Colorado to visit. But I like it here the most. The people here are so friendly. I think I will stay here.”

Finding a new home

In Afghanistan, Wahidy worked for a nonprofit organization that contracted with the U.S. government to evaluate aid projects in the region. Because she worked closely with the United States, she was eligible to apply for a Special Immigrant Visa. Two of her brothers worked for other agencies affiliated with the United States, and were also eligible for the visa. All three were able to evacuate Afghanistan immediately in 2021. 

Wahidy and her brothers lived in a refugee camp in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates for 10 months. 

“It was long,” Wahidy said. “We were not sure about our destiny. Everything was unclear for us.”

Then she went to Virginia in 2022 and lived in a hotel for 25 days. By the end of that September, she was settling into her new home in 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.”

One of Wahidy’s sisters finished the 12th grade, but is unable to study at a university due to the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s education. Wahidy’s other sister recently wrapped up the last year she is allowed to study in school—sixth grade.

Wahidy began the process of applying for a Special Immigrant Visa in 2021, but her case is still pending. In the meantime, she’s also seeking asylum, and has found that process moving slightly faster. If granted asylum, Wahidy can apply for a green card after one year and then sponsor the rest of her family members to immigrate to the United States.

Creating community

Wahidy studied educational psychology in Kabul. Now, she’s running a 10-week mental health program for Afghan women in Minneapolis.

“We are trying to help them cope with their stress,” Wahidy 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 an activity, such as yoga, photography, or embroidery. The Afghan Cultural Society also provides childcare 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.”

Wahidy said the experience has encouraged her to go back to school to pursue a master’s degree, perhaps, in the new place she now calls home.

Data methodology

Sahan Journal looked at immigration trends in Minnesota from 2018 to 2022 using American Community Survey data released annually by the U.S. Census Bureau. 

What is American Community Survey data, and how should I make sense of it?

The American Community Survey is an ongoing survey that produces social, housing, and economic data for different demographic groups in areas that have a population of 65,000 or more. 

The Census Bureau produces and releases estimates annually using data reported by residents who are surveyed. Numbers from these estimates are likely to differ from the “true value,” because only a subset of the population is surveyed.

Sahan Journal used five-year estimates from the American Community Survey, which uses data reported over five-year periods to create the estimates. It is the most reliable community data released by the Census Bureau. 

How did Sahan Journal select these “new communities”?

Sahan Journal used the detailed data table “Place of Birth for the Foreign Population in the United States” from the American Community Survey five-year estimates to identify the five fastest growing new immigrant communities in Minnesota. This data is pulled from the responses from the questionnaire pictured below.

Question for place of birth from the 2022 American Community Survey questionnaire. Source: U.S. Census Bureau

We filtered the data to only include countries/regions that:

  • Have a population smaller than 10,000 in 2018. 
  • Saw a population growth of more than 500 people from 2018 to 2022.

In addition, our analysis removed any countries of origin that experienced a decline in population from 2021 to 2022.

Then, we ranked all of the countries by growth rate over the past five years, and selected the top five communities.

Have questions about our methodology?

Reach out to Sahan Journal’s data reporter, Cynthia Tu, at [email protected].

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