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Beyond the large, bright windows at the Afghan Cultural Society, immigrant-owned restaurants and colorful murals line a bustling Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis.
Peek inside, and there’s a calmer scene: red Afghan rugs and matching cushions swath the floors and walls of a large, sun-filled room; on some days, people sit on the floor drinking green tea from glass mugs.
“This is what a typical Afghan living room looks like—just a big old rug with cushions all around,” said Nasreen Sajady, executive director of the Afghan Cultural Society. “That’s it. We’re lounge-y people.”
For the 1,200 Afghans who settled in Minnesota after fleeing the Taliban takeover over last year, the Afghan Cultural Society doesn’t just look like the home they hurriedly left behind—it’s a place to heal and find community.
The Afghan Cultural Society is unveiling its first-ever office and community space on October 20. The organization led efforts to resettle and mobilize the Afghan community in Minnesota after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021. The society works with local nonprofits, state agencies, and refugee resettlement workers to help Afghan evacuees start their new lives in Minnesota. Before securing its space this past summer, the group operated without an office and worked virtually from home.
“We’re inviting everybody who has helped us along the way,” Sajady said. “All of our friends who brought us a meal, our friends who are in the nonprofit world who helped guide us through this process, the Afghans who have supported us through this work, state agencies, and refugee resettlement agencies.”
The Afghan Cultural Society, located in Minneapolis’ Cedar–Riverside neighborhood, is a first stop for many of Minnesota’s refugee communities and will serve as a resource center for the state’s new Afghan community.
The organization’s 2,100-square-foot space is in a 121-year-old building and shares a block with Midwest Mountaineering and May Day Books, which has a long history of organizing and progressive political education. Members of the Afghan Cultural Society have leaned on the area’s organizing community for guidance.
At least two of nine Afghan Cultural Society staffers are at the space every day, and the organization is hiring three more people. Some of the employees are recent arrivals themselves. The staff speak a range of languages spoken by Afghan refugees: Farsi, Pashto, Dari, Uzbeki, Urdu, and Turkic.
“That’s the beautiful part about having such a diverse group of people. We all have different styles,” Sajady said. “That’s a good representation of all the different types of Afghans that are here—and we can challenge each other. It’s a beautiful balance.”
A space for healing
Sahan Journal met with Sajady while she was working with other members of the Afghan Cultural Society on October 12. The agenda for the day was to finish setting up the society’s donation section. Sajady and staff member Rezadad Mohammadi measured out where to hang a scarf organizer while three other staff members hung a pile of donated women’s cultural clothing on two round clothing racks. They took breaks to drink tea and eat palmier biscuits.
Sajady walked Sahan Journal through the space, pointing to dozens of pieces of Afghan art and artifacts. The organization’s founder, Amina Baha, started the Afghan Cultural Society in 2018 to preserve Afghan culture for her children. Baha collected donated jewelry, art, photographs, instruments, clothing, and rugs for cultural exhibits. Now, her collection has found a home on the walls of the Afghan Cultural Society, which operated for years as a cultural preservation group for local Afghans before the evacuation led it to become a formal nonprofit. Sajady donated a rug that’s been in her family for more than 40 years for use in the space.
“She was trying to change the narrative, because all everyone knows is war and deserts,” Sajady said of Baha’s work. “There is so much more to us.”
When the Taliban took over, Baha and Sajady mobilized the Afghan Cultural Society. They joined meetings with the state to discuss the emergency resettlement of Afghan refugees. The group stressed the importance of providing refugees with culturally appropriate food, interpreters, housing assistance, and mental health support.
The group acted as a liaison between resettlement agencies and families who needed additional support. By May 2022, the staff took on their own client cases by helping refugees secure housing, jobs, and driver’s licenses.
By July, the Afghan Cultural Society officially became a nonprofit organization and secured the office in Cedar–Riverside. The space had a soft launch in September.
The Afghan Cultural Society partnered with nonprofits and county and city agencies to hold a resource fair on September 24. At least 200 people showed up. So many people attended a tenants’ rights workshop at the society’s space, Sajady said, that an additional session was held in the parking lot.
Organizers at the Afghan Cultural Society like Mohammadi also partnered with community members to hold a march and candlelight vigil on October 7. About 200 people gathered to protest a recent attack in Afghanistan targeting the Hazara ethnic group at the Kaaj educational center in Kabul.
“The Afghans have seen a lot of trauma,” Mohammadi said. “So I wanted to create a space here for Afghans and the Hazara community to talk about it.”
Sajady said they plan to host women’s mental health circles in partnership with the Center For Victims of Torture so women can share their experiences in a safe space while painting or practicing yoga. The organization has already held a few tea circles and lunches for women.
“There were some folks [in Minnesota] who actually went to school with some of these women,” Sajady said, gesturing to photos of the Kaaj bombing victims hanging on a wall. “It was very emotional. There was a lot of healing happening, and a lot of pain. That’s the best part of this space; people can use it to heal and come together.”
In-person help over tea
In addition to community events, addressing individual needs take make up much of the Afghan Cultural Society’s work.
A roundtable of the state’s Afghan emergency response team—made up of government agencies, nonprofits, refugee resettlement, educators, and legal aid—meets weekly online to discuss the new community’s needs.
In a recent meeting, Sajady brought up a single Afghan client. “They’re in need of pretty much everything,” Sajady said, naming furniture and kitchen supplies as examples.
“I may have a lead on furniture,” said the group’s moderator, Anjuli Cameron, research director of the state’s Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans.
Most of the meetings start similarly.
Arash Yousufi, Sajady’s partner and a staff member at the Afghan Cultural Society, said most of the time people drop in to ask questions about filling out forms and dealing with piles of paperwork.
“A lot of time you can see in their face and in their eyes that they feel really helpless: Where do I even start?” Yousufi said. “You don’t know how to make doctor’s appointments, you don’t know how to read this letter.”
Yousufi added that filling out the long bureaucratic forms is one thing, but some people need help writing to begin with. A lot of languages in Afghanistan, like Farsi for example, are not written in a straight line from left to right the way English is written. Arash noticed that refugees wrote on a downward slant.
“Sometimes it feels like an endless task, because there is so much they need help with,” Yousufi said. But the clients are grateful, nonetheless, he added. One told Yousufi: “Without you, I don’t know how I’d survive.”
With the new space, the staff at the Afghan Cultural Society hopes to meet these needs quickly, personally, and over a cup of tea.
The public is invited to the Afghan Cultural Society’s grand opening on October 20 from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m at 301 Cedar Ave South in Minneapolis. There will be a blessing of the space, music, dance, tea, and light refreshments, including an Afghan ice cream called shiryakh.