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New to Minnesota, Afghan women fight loneliness through 'Sewing Social'

After resettling in Minnesota, many Afghan women expressed feeling lonely. So the nonprofit Alight started a weekly "Sewing Social."

BLOOMINGTON, Minnesota — Every Wednesday morning, the sounds of sewing machines take over at a Bloomington church. 

Inside one of the rooms, 30 women are busy working on sewing projects. In this case, it's a tote bag. 

Every stitch while sewing helps create a tighter bond. For Laila, in more ways than one. 

"In this community, we think that it is a small Afghanistan," Laila said. "Because all ladies are from Afghanistan and we know the culture, the language and it is good for us."

Laila is one of about 1,500 Afghan refugees who have resettled in Minnesota since the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021. 

She had been working for an organization connected to the U.S. Embassy, teaching English and computer classes. 

"They [Taliban] told that they will kill, especially the women and girls, because they are against women's education," Laila said. "Because of that, we were obligated to leave Afghanistan."

They first went to Pakistan, then Qatar, before spending three months at a military base in New Jersey. They eventually made it to Minnesota. Laila and her family have made their home in St. Louis Park. She was about four weeks pregnant when they were forced to leave. Her daughter is now one year old. 

"I'm very happy that she's safe and she can study," Laila said. 

But adjusting to life in Minnesota wasn't easy. It's a loneliness other women in this cohort can relate to. 

"When we first arrived, the first days were very difficult because we were refugees and we didn't have so much," said Mawluda, through an interpreter. 

Mawluda arrived in Minneapolis nearly two years. 

"When we first arrived here, I felt a sense of loneliness," she said. 

The nonprofit Alight, headquartered in Minnesota, has been helping Afghan refugees during this transition through different programs. To welcome families, Alight helped fully furnish and stock homes with brand new items. The nonprofit also opened a market where families were able to shop for free for necessities. 

Credit: Heidi Wigdahl
Afghan women take part in a "Sewing Social" on Wednesday, May 17.

Sonia Anunciacion, who leads Alight's Afghan program, said through talking to some of the women, "They shared that they were very isolated and depressed. They were disconnected from the rest of the community. They wanted to see someone that understood them and spoke the same language as them."

The women also shared that they loved to sew. So, Alight started hosting a weekly sewing social. 

"We take care of transportation... child care. We have interpreters. We provide them with an Afghan meal. We try to make it as easy as possible for them to attend," Anunciacion said. 

Besides a teacher that helps the women hone their sewing skills, Anunciacion said there is a mental health facilitator that is available for one-on-one sessions and leads group activities such as breathing exercises. 

"Now I have the feelings of belonging and I see my community here," Mawluda said. 

"It's been such a difference from when I first met these women till now," Anunciacion said. "Just even physically they look healthier. They're happier and now they have these really strong bonds that they formed."

Laila agrees and said, "I made a lot of friends and if I have some problem, I can call them and ask them for help. So it is good." 

The five-month-long program is winding down. The group has two more sessions left. A new cohort of 30 women will join the next sewing social in September. 

Alight also hosts monthly field trips for 30 women and 30 youth, taking them to different parts of the state. 

They have done everything from visiting museums to going to a Twins game. 

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