Beyond the tall, bright windows of the Afghan Cultural Society, immigrant-owned restaurants and colorful murals line a bustling Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis.
Peek inside and you’ll discover a calmer scene: red Afghan rugs and matching throw pillows cover the floors and walls of a large, sunny room; some days people sit on the floor drinking green tea from glass cups.
“This is what a typical Afghan living room looks like – just a big old rug with cushions all around it,” said Nasreen Sajady, executive director of the Afghan Cultural Society. “That’s it. We’re living room people.
For the 1,200 Afghans who settled in Minnesota after fleeing the Taliban takeover last year, the Afghan Cultural Society doesn’t just feel like the home they hastily left, it’s a place to heal and find community.
The Afghan Cultural Society unveils its very first office and community space on October 20. The organization led efforts to resettle and mobilize the Afghan community in Minnesota after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021. The society works with local nonprofits, state agencies and the resettlement of refugees. workers to help Afghan evacuees start their new lives in Minnesota. Before securing its space last summer, the group operated without an office and practically worked from home.
“We invite everyone 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 guided us through this process, the Afghans who supported us through this work, the agencies of State and refugee resettlement agencies.”
The Afghan Cultural Society, located in the Cedar–Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, is a first stop for many Minnesota 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 relied on the organizing community in the region for guidance.
At least two of the Afghan Cultural Society’s nine staff members are present in the space every day, and the organization hires three more. Some of the employees are newcomers themselves. The staff speaks several languages spoken by Afghan refugees: Farsi, Pashto, Dari, Uzbek, Urdu and Turkish.
“That’s the beauty of having such a diverse group of people. We all have different styles,” Sajady said. “It’s a good representation of all the different types of Afghans that are here, and we can challenge each other. It’s a nice balance. »
A healing space
Sahan Journal caught up with Sajady while working with other members of the Afghan Cultural Society on October 12. The agenda for the day was to finish setting up the donations section of the society. Sajady and staff member Rezadad Mohammadi determined where to hang a scarf organizer while three other staff members hung a pile of donated women’s cultural clothing on two round clothes racks. They took breaks to drink tea and eat palm cookies.
Sajady scoured the space with Sahan Journal, pointing to dozens of Afghan artworks and artifacts. The organization’s founder, Amina Baha, established the Afghan Cultural Society in 2018 to preserve Afghan culture for her children. Baha collected jewelry, artwork, photographs, instruments, clothing, and carpets for cultural exhibits. Today, his collection has found refuge within the walls of the Afghan Cultural Society, which operated for years as a cultural preservation group for local Afghans before evacuation led to it becoming a nonprofit organization. official non-profit. Sajady donated a rug that has been in his family for over 40 years to 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 for us.”
When the Taliban took over, Baha and Sajady mobilized the Afghan Cultural Society. They participated in 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. As of May 2022, staff were dealing with their own client cases helping refugees obtain housing, employment and driving licenses.
In July, the Afghan Cultural Society officially became a non-profit organization and obtained the Cedar–Riverside office. The space had a soft launch in September.
The Afghan Cultural Society has partnered with non-profit organizations and county and city agencies to organize a resource fair on September 24. At least 200 people showed up. So many people attended a workshop on tenant rights in the company space, Sajady said, that an additional session took place in the parking lot.
Afghan Cultural Society organizers like Mohammadi also teamed up with community members to hold a march and candlelight vigil on October 7. Around 200 people gathered to protest against a recent attack in Afghanistan targeting the Hazara ethnic group at the Kaaj education center in Kabul.
“Afghans have been through a lot of trauma,” Mohammadi said. “So I wanted to create a space here for Afghans and the Hazara community to talk about it.”
Nasreen 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 organized a few tea circles and lunches for women.
“There were people [in Minnesota] who went to school with some of these women,” Sajady said, pointing to pictures of Kaaj bombing victims hanging on the wall. “It was very emotional. There was a lot of healing and a lot of pain. That’s the best part of this space; people can use it to heal and come together.
Help in person over tea
In addition to community events, meeting individual needs is a large part of the work of the Afghan Cultural Society.
A roundtable of the Afghan State Emergency Response Team – made up of government agencies, nonprofits, refugee resettlement, educators and legal aid – meets every week online to discuss the needs of the new community.
In a recent meeting, Sajady brought up a single Afghan client. “They need just about everything,” Sajady said, citing furniture and kitchen utensils as examples.
“I might have a lead on the furniture,” said group leader Anjuli Cameron, research director for Minnesota’s Asia Pacific People Council.
Most meetings start the same way.
Arash Yousufi, Sajady’s partner and Afghan Cultural Society staff member, said most of the time people come asking about filling out forms and dealing with piles of paperwork.
“Often you can see in their face and in their eyes that they feel really helpless: Where to 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 get started. Many languages in Afghanistan, such as Farsi for example, are not written in a straight line from left to right as English is written. Arash noticed that the refugees were writing in a downward slant.
“Sometimes it feels like a never-ending task because they need the help so badly,” Yousufi said. But customers are grateful nonetheless, he added. One of them said to Yousufi: “Without you, I don’t know how I would survive.”
With the new space, Afghan Cultural Society staff hope to meet these needs quickly, personally and over a cup of tea.
The public is invited to the grand opening of the Afghan Cultural Society on October 20 from 3-8 p.m. at 301 Cedar Ave South in Minneapolis. There will be a space blessing, music, dancing, tea and light refreshments, including an Afghan ice cream called shiryakh.