March 8, 2023 | On this International Women’s Day 2023, we’re celebrating the many refugee and immigrant women we work with at the International Institute of Minnesota. Zari, a recent arrival from Afghanistan, shares about her experiences fleeing the Taliban, creating community among Afghan women in Minnesota, and the importance of women’s mental health.
Adjusting to life in Minnesota as an Afghan woman – away from her tight knit family and friends – hasn’t been easy for Zari. Yet, on this International Women’s Day, the 28-year-old is determined to embrace her newfound freedom to further her education and support other Afghan women living here.
“When I came here, I felt so free,” Zari said, remembering her arrival six months ago when she began her resettlement process with the International Institute of Minnesota. “People are not judging you. They’re not talking about you, like what you’re wearing or what you do. But in Afghanistan, they were judging you like, yeah, you’re a woman and you have to make yourself … the box that they draw for you.”
Zari is done fitting into boxes.
While her sisters in Afghanistan are no longer allowed by the Taliban to attend school or gather outside of the home with friends, Zari attended and graduated from the Institute’s Professional Leadership Training. In that class, she crafted an American resume, practiced her interview skills and landed a job at a local non-profit, working with Afghan women and mental health.
“When I came here, I felt so free.”
Zari also plans to build upon her bachelor’s degree in educational psychology, which she earned in Kabul before the Taliban took over. Now, she attends the Institute’s College Readiness Academy six hours a week after work – so dedicated that sometimes she calls into her online class from the bus ride home.
During those classes she learns about the American college and university systems, practices her writing and reading skills in English, and keeps in mind her personal goal of earning a master’s degree.
Creating community for Afghan women
Alongside her classes, Zari dedicates her time to other Afghan women now living in Minnesota. She works as a mental health lead for Afghan women’s groups, creating space for them to form friendships and build community. She explained that in Afghanistan, talking about mental health – especially as a woman – isn’t common.
“I focus on woman a lot because they need this,” Zari said. “They went through many traumas, many difficulties in Afghanistan and now they’re here. They have to talk about their mental health and they have to know it’s important. It’s not just physical. Mental health is also important to have a healthy life.”
While Zari enjoys helping others and pursuing her own dreams, freedom here feels bittersweet.
In 2021, before the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan, Zari worked as a journalist who reported on cultural and social events, as well as female activists and writers. That life would not be safe under Taliban rule. Because of her job, Zari knew she needed to leave Afghanistan and find safety. As a woman, the need to find safety was compounded.
“We had to be home all the time. We were not allowed to go work or get education. It was hard to imagine that life,” Zari said. “But fortunately, after two months of (the Taliban) taking the country, we found the opportunity to get out of the country for me and two of my brothers.”
She left her parents, sisters and cousins – who had all lived together with her brothers as a family of 10.
Building a new life in Minnesota
Zari spent 10 months living in an Abu Dhabi refugee camp, where her brothers remain, before learning she could join another brother already living in Minnesota.
“Now I’m here, and I’m happy about it, but I worry about my family,” Zari said.
Plus, it takes time to adjust to a new country’s customs and language. “The environment is new, the culture is new, everything is new for me.”
She’s grateful for a friend she made in her Professional Leadership class – a woman from Ecuador – and looks forward to befriending Minnesotans, too.
As she rebuilds her life here, Zari dreams of continuing to support Afghan women both here and at home.
“Maybe if I can help my people, the people living in Afghanistan, maybe I can help them online or something,” Zari said. “Mostly the woman, that they are going through a very bad situation. I am interested to continue mental health.”
Six months after her arrival in Minnesota, Zari lives in an apartment by herself for the first time. She talks to her family most days of the week and lives her life one day at a time, uncertain about what her future holds.
One thing, however, she knows for sure. “Absolutely, I’m continuing my education here.”
The International Institute of Minnesota commends Zari, her accomplishments, her leadership and her role as a community builder. She exemplifies the focus of International Women’s Day, which celebrates women’s achievements and calls for embracing gender equity.
Reported and written by Alisa Blackwood, Communications Manager at the International Institute of Minnesota. Alisa’s work at the Institute comes after years of writing for publications and organizations such as The Associated Press, O, The Oprah Magazine, TravelandLeisure.com, Health and more. She hopes her writing about Institute clients, students and staff bring to life the stories behind the news headlines.