Karen Cooley-Kistler ripped open the wrappings on mattresses on April 27, 2023, while helping the International Institute of Minnesota set up a house in St. Paul for an Afghan family. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Karen Cooley-Kistler ripped open the wrappings on mattress after mattress using scissors to cut through heavy plastic. By day’s end, she and a helper had placed eight new mattresses atop metal bed frames in a St. Paul home on a recent afternoon.

Blue and gray bed sheets went to the boys’ room downstairs, white and pink to the girls’ room upstairs. Cooley-Kistler tucked in blankets and placed pillows on all of the beds.

But these beds were not meant for Cooley-Kistler or her family. 

She was one of about 10 volunteers recruited from the International Institute of Minnesota’s refugee resettlement program to set up a house for a refugee family of 11 that recently arrived in Minnesota from Afghanistan. 

“What we’re doing is nothing compared to what these people have been through,” said Cooley-Kistler, who has helped the institute set up about eight houses and apartments. She and her husband, Stephan Kistler, have set up houses together for about a year and a half.

Home essentials—toilet paper, bedsheets, pots and pans, chairs and lamps—are stored in large plastic bins in a donation room at the institute’s offices in St. Paul. On a recent rainy Thursday afternoon, institute staff and volunteer Kathy Chinn filled their cars with the essentials and headed to the home. 

Volunteers and staffers had three hours to set it up—from placing every dish in kitchen cabinets to laying out toys on a freshly made bed. The institute purchased the new furniture, including couches and the mattresses, from J&J Furniture, a longtime partner. Movers from J&J helped move the furniture and set them up. 

First task: Finding a home

Sarah Burbage, the institute’s housing coordinator, found the St. Paul house for the Afghan family after a landlord reached out to her about its availability. So far this year, the institute has helped set up about 40 homes for nearly 100 people. 

Burbage coordinates volunteers and invites them to help clean and set up  new homes. She also searches for landlords who will rent an affordable home in the current tight housing market. 

“There is sometimes a misconception that refugees get free housing, and that is definitely not the case,” said Micaela Schuneman, the institute’s senior director of immigration and refugee services. “Our clients are renting. They are signing leases with private landlords like everyone else.” 

About 30 landlords have worked with the institute or signed up to be in a pool of potential landlords for the institute. Burbage keeps in touch with them to track availability. 

But sometimes she has to do her own searching. 

Using websites like Zillow.com, Burbage narrows down a list of potential homes for an incoming refugee family. After scheduling tours of the homes and finding one that fits the needs of the family, she talks to the landlord about renting to newcomers who may have no credit or rental history. Some landlords have turned her away.

Burbage is currently facing a challenge finding landlords with properties in Minneapolis, where many families want to live because of relatives in the city. 

When a landlord does agree to work with the institute, it covers two months’ rent and the upfront deposit.  

For refugee families, the homes are a turning point in their lives. 

It’s not only … having a place to put their items and go home to at the end of the day, but it’s very symbolic as well for people to have their own space, in their own home, and to feel like they’re not in limbo anymore.

Micaela Schuneman, a senior director with the International Institute of Minnesota

“It’s not only, obviously, having a place to put their items and go home to at the end of the day, but it’s very symbolic as well for people to have their own space, in their own home, and to feel like they’re not in limbo anymore,” Schuneman said. 

Many clients in the refugee resettlement program fled their homeland because of war or active conflict, and lived in temporary housing—like refugee camps-–for months or years. 

Not all the houses and apartments found by the institute are move-in ready, Burbage said. Sometimes volunteers have to deep-clean before setting up a house, and in a few cases, lights or appliances don’t work right away. 

“It gives you a glimpse into the housing situation of people who live in lower-income tiers, even people who have grown up and lived here all their life,” Kistler said. “It’s a tough environment to find housing at an affordable price. That’s probably the hardest thing to see and experience firsthand.” 

Turning a space into a home

When choosing items from the donation room, Burbage said she likes to picture how they’ll look in the house. She chose dark colors for the boys’ bedrooms and light colors, such as white and pink, for the girls’ room. 

“They’re going to see it first with their eyes, and we want them to be happy right away,” Burbage said as she placed toys on one of the girls’ beds in the recently set-up house. The new family has six boys and three girls.

The house features a bedroom and bathroom for three boys on the lower level. 

The main floor includes a living room, kitchen, half-bathroom, and a closet with a washer and dryer. The upstairs has two bedrooms for three more boys and three girls. 

The master bedroom, fitted out with gray bed sheets, features a small window looking out over downtown St. Paul, a walk-in closet, and another full bathroom. 

By the time Burbage heard that the Afghan family was on the way to Minnesota, she had only a few days to find and set up a home. When the family arrived on April 18, they had to stay in a hotel for 10 days while remodeling was completed. 

Kathy Chinn and her daughter, Makenna Chinn, 22, cleaned and arranged all of the bathrooms. 

“I like making the places look nice,” Makenna said. “Just knowing that you’re doing something good for people.”  

The institute furnishes homes at no cost to their refugee clients. Federal grants allow the institute to cover the deposit, two months’ rent (about $2,000 per month in this case), new furniture and the first load of groceries, said Emmanuel Hakizimama, the institute’s housing case manager. 

One of the first volunteers to arrive at the house was 75-year-old Jeri Lu Mattson, a volunteer since 2016. Mattson helped clean the house’s kitchen counters, drawers, and cabinets. She also washed donated dishes and cups. 

In her free time, Mattson visits online sites, such as Buy Nothing Facebook groups, to find furniture for refugee families. For the Afghan family, she brought a coffee table, credenza, and a brown chest, among other items. 

Mattson uses her own money to buy a gift card for every house she helps to set up, and makes a trip to the dollar store to buy the children new toys. 

“I can’t imagine coming here—and you have everything in here—but there’s gotta be something that you want to pick out yourself,” she said. “Even if they want to go and buy popsicles, it’s something they can do.”

Kathy Chinn and her daughter became volunteers with the institute after a chance meeting with Mattson. Chinn was selling some of her furniture online, and Mattson reached out to her. 

It just feels very gratifying to know that as American citizens, we are trying to make their lives comfortable, and for them to feel welcomed.

Kathy Chinn, a volunteer with the International Institute of Minnesota

About 5 p.m. after the house had been set up by the volunteers, Burbage took one last pass through every room, picking up trash, sorting out toys in the children’s rooms, and straightening out a teddy bear on a bed.

The family was scheduled to move in the morning after Chinn and other volunteers set up the home.  

“We leave everything like what they’re calling, ‘key-turn ready,’” said Kathy Chinn. “So, you walk in, there’s food in the fridge, there’s beds in the units—it literally is walk in and you’re home. And it just feels very gratifying to know that as American citizens, we are trying to make their lives comfortable, and for them to feel welcomed.”

A teddy bear sits on a child’s bed in a St. Paul home that volunteers from the International Institute of Minnesota furnished for an Afghan refugee family on April 27, 2023. Credit: Katelyn Vue | Sahan Journal

After the move-in, the work goes on

The institute’s work doesn’t stop after a family moves into a home, Schuneman said. It continues to offer clients career training, English-learning classes, and financial skills classes. 

“That’s a real benefit that working with an agency like ours can provide, that we have that aspect of being able to understand and appreciate the cultural adjustment that people are going through,” she said. “We’re here to help everybody through that process.”

Hakizimama will be back next week to talk to the family about tenant rights and the lease agreement, and explain how to pay rent and operate the appliances.

“Sometimes our clients keep living in that same apartment that we found for them at the beginning… they’ll live there for many years because they feel like, this is my home,” Schuneman said.

“It’s a really great thing for them to be able to have their own space from the very beginning, like from that first arrival getting here,” she added. “We drive them from the airport to their own apartment, and it’s a real comfort for people.” 

How you can help:

  • Volunteer to help set up houses:
  • Donate goods for refugees:
    • Check out the institute’s Amazon Wish List to purchase the most-needed items and ship it to them directly. 
    • Schedule a donation drop-off by contacting Hayat Mohamed at HMohamed@iimn.org or 651-377-8663.  
    • To organize a donation drive, check out this link
  • Sign up as a potential landlord or refer a landlord for a refugee family:
    • Fill out this form on the institute’s website.

Katelyn Vue is the housing reporter for Sahan Journal. She graduated in May 2022 from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Prior to joining Sahan Journal, she was a metro reporting intern at the Star...