Minnesota has long welcomed people fleeing disaster in their home countries

As with waves of newcomers from Laos and Somalia in the '70s and '90s, people continue to come to Minnesota to escape strife in their home countries

In the basement of a Columbia Heights home, Baheerullah Shinwari offers an assortment of nuts and hot tea. There are enough almonds, pistachios and cashews to feed a dozen people, but there are only a few people seated on traditional Afghan floor cushions and rugs.

Hospitality is an important part of his culture, the father of five explained.

“Can I make you some lunch?” Shinwari offered in Pashto.

Since the United States pulled out of Afghanistan after a 20-year war last August, Minnesota has seen an influx of more than 1,500 newly arrived Afghans to the state. Among the Afghan evacuees was the Shinwari family which includes Baheerullah, his wife and five children, ranging in age from 2 to 13. All of them are learning English together.

“Once they learn English, life will be easy for them,” Shinwari said. He adds that he hopes they will all become doctors. 

The Shinwari family is not unlike other groups of new Minnesota residents, like Hmong and Somali refugees who arrived here in the 1970s and 1990s, who’ve come here to escape natural or man made-disasters. Five agencies in Minnesota have been at the forefront of efforts to resettle refugees: the International Institute of Minnesota, Minnesota Council of Churches, Arrive Ministries, Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota and Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota.

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Shinwari is still working on his English, so helping translate is Ahmad Shah, who worked as an interpreter in Afghanistan before coming to Minnesota himself in 2016.

Two people pose for a photo.
Ahmad Shah (left) and Baheerullah Shinwari (right) pose for a photo in Shinwari's home.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News

Shah founded the Afghan Community of Minnesota and also works with one of the five resettlement agencies in Minnesota, the Minnesota Council of Churches. When Shah first came to Minnesota there were about 300 Afghans in the state, he recalled. In the last several months since the end of the war, that number has grown to around 1,800 and counting.

And they are relying heavily on the people like him who have already settled in for help with basic needs like transportation, filling out paperwork, finding work and enrolling children in schools. 

“We make their connections with communities and different organizations,” Shah explained. “Then they will understand in the future and they can solve their own problems.”

Shah said Shinwari was lucky he already had a cousin living in Minnesota who found him this home. The resettlement agencies help with six months of rent and other resources. For the Shinwari family, that time period has passed and this is the first month the Shinwaris are expected to pay all their bills on their own. Shah said that is when it is most important for the growing community to help one another. Shinwari, who has a background in military service working alongside Americans, found work as a security guard and then another job at Boston Scientific on his own, Shah said.

Two people pose for a photo.
Baheerullah Shinwari and his son Yasser play in their home.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News

Help is only temporary

State Refugee Coordinator Rachele King explains the hard work is just beginning for many newly arrived Afghan individuals and families that came with nothing and have experienced a great deal of trauma. Assistance from the state resettlement agencies is not expected to be a long-term resource.

“It is really buying people time to fully integrate and draw on the resiliency they have, skills they came with and the experience and hope and desire for a future here,” King said.  

King explains individual presidential administrations set a cap for how many refugees the country will accept every year. Those numbers fell to historic lows under the Trump administration and continued below average under the Biden administration and during the coronavirus pandemic.

The federal government then consults with the Minnesota Department of Human Services and resettlement agencies to see how many refugees they can reasonably accommodate when factoring in housing and other challenges.

A child puts his hands up against a door.
Yasser, son of Baheerullah Shinwari, steps out from their home.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News

In the case of Afghan evacuees, who worked along U.S. troops, King said the federal government created a parallel system for newly arrived Afghans that gives them humanitarian protection status for two years, but does not give them refugee status or a clear path to permanent residency, which is the goal since most fear for their lives if they returned to Afghanistan.

“So that is a really huge question, challenge and concern for so many of the people who are here right now because it’s an open question of what permanency looks like and what exact path that will take.”

Congress recently declined to pass a measure, the Afghan Adjustment Act, that would have created a path to permanent residency for newly arrived Afghans. Sarah Brenes, the Refugee & Immigrant Program Director for The Advocates for Human Rights, said in the absence of an adjustment act, organizations like hers are working hard to mobilize volunteer attorneys to represent individuals and families in asylum claims, one of the two main paths to permanent status. 

“We are partnering with other legal service providers, resettlement agencies and community organizations to also support those who may be eligible for Special Immigrant Visas based on their work with the U.S. Government while in Afghanistan,” Brenes said.  

Besides questions about how they will be able to stay in the United States, Shah said many newly arrived Afghans are extremely worried about their family members or colleagues among the thousands of Afghan allies the U.S. left behind in its chaotic withdrawal.

“Twenty-four hours per day, people searching for them to find them and kill them,” Shah said. “Their life is pretty dangerous.”

A familiar story

The stories of Afghan arrivals and those left behind remind historian Chia Youyee Vang of her own family story.

Vang’s family members were among some of the first Hmong arrivals in Minnesota in the 1970s. The Vietnam War had spread to Laos and the United States recruited the Hmong to fight against communism. 

“We paid for this migration with the blood of our men and women who died on behalf of the American nation, although knowing nothing about it,” Vang said.

Vang is now a historian, author and Vice Chancellor of Diversity Equity and Inclusion at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Vang described how war and natural disasters often lead to new groups arriving in Minnesota. While there are what she calls push factors, like war, there are also pull factors, like the hope for a better quality of life in the United States that lead to new arrivals and various forms of immigration.

The first large group of immigrants arrived from Europe, mostly Norway, Sweden, Ireland and Germany. Hmong refugees began arriving in the mid 1970s, and Somali refugees began arriving in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Somali government led to extreme violence. People born in Mexico, India and Ethiopia also make up the largest groups of foreign-born Minnesotans, according to state researchers.

Aidarus Aden, a refugee from Somalia, holds a sign.
Aidarus Aden, a refugee from Somalia, holds a sign at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport on Jan. 29, 2017, in protest of the refugee ban that then-President Trump used an executive order to enact.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News 2017

Minnesota is also home to other, smaller refugee communities from around the world. According to a 2017 State Department report, in 2016 people from more than two dozen countries, including Myanmar, Belarus, Syria and Sri Lanka sought refuge in Minnesota.  

As communities began to thrive over time, mostly in and around the Twin Cities, Vang explained they invited others to come through a process called chain migration. 

“There are pockets all over the state, too, but they are mostly in the Twin Cities where there is a critical mass and you can have social support,” Vang said “So nothing different, in my opinion, than what the Norwegians and Swedes, nothing different than what they did.”

New arrivals in workforce 

Kaw Hai is the lead auto mechanic at SKD Auto Tek.
Kaw Hai is the lead auto mechanic at SKD Auto Tek in St. Paul, here in October 2016. He's a refugee from the Karen State in Burma.
Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News 2016

According to 2017 data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, resettling refugees benefits the country’s economy. While the exact yearly costs of refugee resettlement for Minnesota are difficult to determine, DHS receives approximately $5 million in yearly federal funds to support the statewide resettlement of refugees.

State resettlement agencies reported that in fiscal year 2017, Minnesota ranked 13th in resettling refugees but was the highest per capita in the country. Thanks to a reputation as a welcoming state, Minnesota ranked first in the nation for secondary migration, which occurs when refugees move to Minnesota after an initial resettlement somewhere else. As consumers, immigrants, not just refugees, have an estimated more $650 billion in lifetime earnings and annual purchasing power of $5 billion, according to Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota. Immigrants pay an estimated $793 million in state and local taxes, annually.

Immigrants are also a vital part of Minnesota’s economy, according to state Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove. The state estimates 10 percent of Minnesota’s labor force are born outside of the U.S. About 105,000 new foreign-born residents joined the state over the last decade.

“In fact, the only reason we are growing at all is because of international immigration,” Grove said about Minnesota.

Minnesota also has an historic more than 200,000 open jobs, which is part of the reason the state created an Office of New Americans — which started services during the pandemic to help get resources to struggling immigrant-owned businesses. 

“I think a lot of businesses would like to access immigrant talent and they don’t really know how,” Grove said. “Unless you're big enough to have the resources a larger company might have, finding that talent is harder.” 

Grove hopes the office will provide more efficient and individualized resources to pair people with jobs that match any previous experiences. 

“I think it’s just an awakening from an economic perspective, let alone a moral one, that this is imperative,” Grove said. “We have got to make the welcome mat for immigrants in this state as good as it’s ever been.”

But the office is grant-funded, leaving its future funding uncertain. 

Vang said as a more diverse and international population continues to grow in Minnesota, and as conflict across the world continues to drive more movement across the globe, the state has a unique opportunity to embrace change and flourish as a result.

“As a historian I keep reminding others, the things happening now, they have happened before,” Vang said. “It is about how we respond to them.”

Pay it forward

A man and child sit on the front steps of a house.
Baheerullah Shinwari and his son Yasser sit front of the their house in Columbia Heights on May 11.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News

Baheerullah Shinwari has hope. Hope that he, his wife and their five children — with help from the community — will thrive. Shinwari also looks forward to the day his family can pay it forward and help other new arrivals to Minnesota.

 “I am happy, life is going well.”

North Star Journey was made possible in part with funds from the Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.