Sonia Anunciacion, an Alight team leader, unpacks boxes with volunteers at a new home for an Afghan family. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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With more than 700 Afghan refugees arriving in Minnesota, resettlement agencies are mobilizing to set up permanent housing for hundreds of families—and appealing to volunteers for help.

The Minneapolis-based humanitarian organization Alight, formerly known as the American Refugee Committee, has begun furnishing and stocking housing for 250 families. 

Since September, Minnesota has welcomed 721 Afghans. Evacuees who have been waiting in military bases across the country will have to leave them by mid-February. The state aims to have resettled up to 750 people by then.

Sonia Anunciacion is the team leader for Alight’s Afghan response project. She began her own advocacy work immediately after the Taliban’s takeover of her home country in August. Anunciacion collected donations to deliver to Fort McCoy, a military base in Wisconsin, in September. Alight later hired Anunciacion to set up housing for newly arrived Afghan families. 

“With Alight, it’s on a whole different level. There’s a lot more people in the community joining in because I’m part of this organization,” Anunciacion said. “It’s a well-known organization that’s done a lot of good around the world.”

Annie Nolte-Henning, director of the Americas at Alight, said Alight has been working with longtime Afghan residents of Minnesota to learn about the needs of refugees. While it is currently focused on setting up housing, Alight will continue to connect families with resources, Nolte-Henning said.

“We’ve really been thoughtful in figuring out: What is it besides shelter that Afghan families need at this moment?” Nolte-Henning said. “We know a house is nothing if you don’t have dignity, if you don’t have joy, if you don’t have a sense of comfort and safety.”

Here’s how you can support the growing Afghan community in Minnesota.

Make a donation

Alight is collecting financial donations to get homes ready for Afghan families. The group is seeking new and gently used household items, including larger furniture. Contact action@wearealight.org for more information.

Alight has also compiled a list of items needed on an Amazon wishlist

“Families are coming with very little; they’ve been in transition for months, and many have gone through traumatic events in Afghanistan,” Anunciacion said. “Our goal is to create a safe and comfortable home for them to land in and build a meaningful life.”

The International Institute, a St. Paul-based refugee resettlement agency, is also collecting financial donations online to support refugees. The International Institute provides a range of services for refugees, including housing support, immigration assistance, language learning, and more.

“The cost of housing is only one barrier. The availability of housing is another barrier,” said Cori Ertz, the group’s development director. “The federal government program really only funds about 60 percent of the costs of refugee resettlement. And we really ask for the community to help meet the remainder.”

“Families are coming with very little; they’ve been in transition for months, and many have gone through traumatic events in Afghanistan. Our goal is to create a safe and comfortable home for them to land in and build a meaningful life.”

Sonia Anunciacion, Afghan response team leader

To accommodate the everyday needs of a growing number of Afghan families, Maggie Habashy, an International Institute board member, has been hosting donation drives. People wanting to help can purchase winter jackets and household supplies through Habashy’s Amazon Wishlist. Habashy said she’ll be adding donation requests to the list as needed.

Hennepin County has also organized an Amazon wishlist that includes clothing, household items, children’s toys, and winter clothing. 

Sponsor a family

Alight is also encouraging people to start fundraisers in their own networks to sponsor Afghan families. Some things to know for those wanting to help:

  • Setting up a home will cost $4,000. That includes mattresses, couches, sheets, towels, a stocked pantry, and more. All essentials will be ready for families as soon as they move in.
  • Setting up a kitchen will cost $2,000. That amount stocks a refrigerator and pantry with familiar groceries as well as with small appliances, pots and pans, dishes, and a kitchen table.
  • Setting up a bedroom will cost $1,000. That includes a bed, mattress, sheets, pillows, a duvet, a lamp, a dresser, and hangers for the closet.

How to volunteer

Opportunities to volunteer to help resettle Afghan refugees abound:

Alight is encouraging groups of friends and family to sign up to help set up houses for Afghan families. You can sign up to volunteer here

As people purchase items off of the Amazon wishlist, Alight receives large shipments at a warehouse. Volunteers use those items to set up houses from scratch. 

“It’s definitely an all-hands-on-deck moment,” Nolte-Henning said. “We are asking for and receiving all the help we can possibly get.”

ServeMinnesota, the state’s administrator for AmeriCorps resources, is searching for applicants for the Refugee Response Initiative. As a paid AmeriCorps member, you’ll serve one of two roles. Resettlement navigators support housing placement, community orientation, and case management. Youth services navigators engage with kids ages 0 to 18 in fun, educational activities. Members receive approximately $15 an hour and other benefits. 

The Salvation Army is also seeking volunteers to help new arrivals. Contact Suzi.Kissinger@usc.salvationarmy.org for more information. Volunteers undergo a short training and background check.

Help find housing

The International Institute noted that the most urgent need for incoming Afghans is housing. With low-income housing shortages prevalent across the Twin Cities, refugees are struggling to find places to live. Once they find housing, they can enroll their kids in the local school district, find jobs close by, and begin their lives again.

“The Twin Cities already has an affordable housing crisis,” Ertz said. “What is different about refugees that makes it even harder is they are arriving without employment. They have no savings; they have no wage.”

While each agency provides housing assistance in different ways, the International Institute helps pay the first month’s rent and the security deposit, tapping into federal funds  as well as philanthropic donations, Ertz said.

Landlords interested in renting to Afghan refugees can fill out a form on the agency’s website, Ertz said. The most urgent need is for residences with 3 or 4 bedrooms, but all available low-rent housing is welcome.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services has also identified the need for 3- to 4-bedroom housing and efficiency units, with rent ranging from $1,300 to $1,700 for 3-bedroom units, $1,600 to $2,000 for four-bedroom units, and $650 to $900 for efficiencies. Contact Seble.Rumicho@state.mn.us with housing leads.

Support a local Afghan-owned business

Another way to help Minnesota’s Afghan community is to support restaurants and businesses in the community.

Ariana Kabob & Gyro Bistro is an Afghan and Mediterranean restaurant in St. Louis Park that opened in 2013. It is raising funds for displaced Afghan refugees.

Football Pizza has locations in northeast Minneapolis and Columbia Heights. They serve Afghan food and are known for their football-shaped pizzas. 

Khyber Pass Cafe is an Afghan restaurant in Saint Paul that has been open since 1984. The restaurant is currently open for takeout and curbside pickup only.

With a team comprising three Afghan sisters and their mom, Maazah is an online business featuring chutney made from cilantro and peppers. 

Owned by Sonia Anunciacion, Under the Lote Tree is a self-publishing company that creates Arabic and Islamic workbooks for children ages 2 to 5.

Sahan Journal will be updating this resource list. If you have initiatives or fundraisers to suggest, questions about community needs, or story ideas, please reach out to us at hansari@sahanjournal.com.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.