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MN woman continues humanitarian efforts for Afghans 1 year after U.S. troop withdrawal

Sonia Anunciacion went from collecting supplies at home to spearheading a refugee supply warehouse for a nonprofit, as her extended family remains in Afghanistan.

BROOKLYN PARK, Minn. — When news and images of the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan began to emerge one year ago, Sonia Anunciacion quickly began organizing donation drives for Afghan refugees as a way to combat feelings of helplessness as her own extended family members in Afghanistan were concerned about what would happen.

"Talking a lot with our family, I was getting just really, really absorbed into it all," Anunciacion said. "And then hearing about all the refugees that were coming into the states, I wanted to get involved and just do something."

Anunciacion spoke to KARE 11 in those first few weeks after the fall of Kabul. At the time, many refugees were still on the way to military bases in the US, and she was storing donated items in her basement, looking for a way to get them to those who would be coming to Minnesota with little more than the shirts on their backs. 

Since then, her involvement has only grown.

"I joined Alight back in December," Anunciacion said. "They were looking for an Afghan to lead their welcome home program."

She began by helping to coordinate crews to fully furnish and stock items for 131 homes the state secured for newly resettled Afghan families. In recent months, her attention shifted to a Brooklyn Park warehouse that's focused on helping families in the next phase of resettlement.

"This is a market for any new Afghan that we haven't served yet," she said. "They can come in and shop for free, and these are all brand new items for the house. We have beds, couches, dinning room sets, dishware, things for the bathroom, bedrooms and baby items."

"Even though it's been a year, the majority of the Afghans, for most of the year, they were in military bases around the country or in transitional housing in the hotel, so they've only had a couple of months to live in the homes that they have now, and they're just getting settled."

She says many adults she's spoken to have found success getting work permits, but from there, the challenges quickly mount.

"The issues are getting to these interviews, getting to these jobs, knowing the language," she said. "A lot of the people who don't know the language have to work overnight shifts, and they have a large family to support of six to twelve people. Then imagine living a life here with one income. On average, 77% of the income goes to rent."

Still, she says, it's nothing compared to those who weren't able to leave Afghanistan.

"It's only gotten worse in the last years," she said. "The women have absolutely no rights now. Schools are not accessible to the girls. People are starving to death. Literally, they don't have enough food. They don't have enough money to purchase food."

Which is why it's no wonder, even after serving at least 1,000 Afghans through the market and home settlement, she says Alight is still preparing to welcome more.

Anunciacion: "We don't know what number and how big of a group this will be, but I've heard that potentially, we could have another 50 families arrive in Minnesota." 

Erdahl: "So even a whole year later, a lot of people haven't even settled."

Anunciacion: "Right, I mean, people are still trying to escape Afghanistan. Just recently, I heard of a family that made their way to Pakistan, so I can see this continuing for several years."

And she hopes one day, she'll get to welcome her own extended family into the US.

"Last year, I heard there were over five million applications here alone, in the US," she said. "It doesn't give us much hope in this moment, in bringing my own family here right now, but I hope in the future that they will be."

In the meantime, she'll keep doing whatever she can to help.

"I believe that nothing ever stays the same, so we all have hope that we'll get better," Anunciacion said. "This isn't a choice that these families made, but it's been a life-and-death situation."

The Afghan Market will close at the end of September, once that next group of families arrives. Anunciacion says Alight has already begun to focus on the next phase of work, which is focused on events and outings to help the Afghan families reconnect with each other and learn more about Minnesota.

For more information on Alight and how to give time or resources to it's efforts, click here.

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