Minnesota Afghan community comes together to help refugees

A woman in a tan sweater sits at a table inside.
Sonia Anunciacion inside of her Shakopee, Minn., home on Sept. 21. Anunciacion coordinated deliveries of donated supplies to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin to support Afghan refugees arriving in the US after the Taliban's takeover of the country.
Evan Frost | MPR News

When Sonia Anunciacion talks to her family members about their lives in Afghanistan since the Taliban assumed control of the country from U.S. forces, she knows they censor their responses.

“They’re so scared. One of my cousins used to cry and tell us the situation there. Now when I call him, he says everything’s fine and I can hear the fear in his voice,” she said. “We’re praying for them every day. We’re trying what we can to get people out, but there’s so many people there, you can’t save them all.”

While still hoping to help her family, Anunciacion, of Shakopee, is focusing on what she can do now for Afghan refugees who are already in the U.S. She organized a community donation drive recently for refugees at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. That drive, and several others within the past month, brought in an “overwhelming” amount of supplies, she said, including diapers, toys and household goods. 

The volunteer effort was disconnected at first, said Anunciacion, a second-generation Afghan American, but members of Minnesota’s Afghan community quickly found each other through WhatsApp chats.  

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“There’s Afghans of the community that have come together, Afghans that have been there for several years, or who were born here,” said Anunciacion. “We touch base daily on any updates and resources that we’ve found.”

Getting the donations into the hands of refugees was her next challenge. Anunciacion connected with an employee who works at Fort McCoy. The man was also collecting donations, so Anunciacion arranged for the Minnesota items to be delivered to his home.

Volunteers rented a 20-foot truck and loaded the vehicle from top to bottom. Anunciacion and her cousin drove the truck to their contact in west-central Wisconsin, and he delivered the donations to the refugees at the military base. 

Around 13,000 Afghan refugees are currently housed at Fort McCoy. While they have food, shelter and security, many arrived with only the clothing that they wore. As colder weather approaches, Anunciacion says the refugees will need hats, coats, boots and gloves. They are also in need of school supplies and baby formula. 

Supplies are set up.
A Post Exchange is erected for Afghan evacuees to shop at Fort McCoy, Wis., on Sept. 7, during Operation Allies Welcome. Afghan evacuees are able to purchase basic need items at these trailers.
U.S. Army photo by Spc. Eric Cerami, 55th Signal Company

For refugees who haven’t learned English, Anunciacion says access to laptops or iPads can help. She said Amazon wish lists have been created to purchase items and deliver them directly to families at Fort McCoy.

“It’s an emotional time because [the refugees have] never had to ask for help before. They had established their lives there in Afghanistan, and this is new, you know, taking charity,” said Anunciacion. “No matter how brand new and how great everything is, they have to start over. They have to find new jobs. They have to learn a new language. They have to just trust where they are that they’re safe, and they have to rely a lot on other people in the community to help them.”

One of the things that Anunciacion hopes will also be made available to refugees is access to mental health professionals as some cope with post-traumatic stress and the pain of leaving loved ones behind in Afghanistan.

“I don't even think they realize it until we can sit down and talk with them on what kind of help they need. I think that's huge,” Anunciacion said. “They’re here and they’re safe, and their families are still back in Afghanistan.”

Some local relief efforts are also aimed at helping Afghans who have not been able to leave their country. The Northwest Islamic Community Center in Plymouth is hosting a fundraiser Friday from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Proceeds will go toward humanitarian relief in Afghanistan. 

Anunciacion says there’s still a long road ahead for many Afghan families as they try to rebuild their lives, but many are taking things one day at a time. 

“They’re just so grateful that they’re out of danger right now,” Anunciacion said. “They can actually sleep at night and peace and not have to worry about their children getting taken away or if they’ll live another day.”