When Negin Arazm moved to Woodbury 18 years ago from Iran, it was hard for her to make friends.
In 2011, she discovered the International Group of Woodbury, a collection of women who had come together to make sure people from other countries would feel welcome and have support.
“This group really helped me a lot,” Arazm said. “I have very close friends now ... so it’s a blessing that we met Lisa and that we came to this group.”
The group was started by Lisa Vale, who was born in the U.S. but spent 15 years working in Brazil, Italy and Spain before settling in Woodbury. Vale had the idea to start the group when, shortly after moving back to the U.S., she met a woman from Mexico who was struggling to adjust.
Eight years later, the group still meets monthly. Smaller groups may meet in between for coffee, and some strong one-on-one friendships have formed. There’s even a newly-formed book club.
Some things have changed: the group started as women only until its organizers saw interest from men, and they now hold meetings in the Central Park amphitheater, having outgrown the Woodbury Panera where they began.
Sharing a common bond
At an April 17 meeting, the mood inside the amphitheater was bright and lively, a stark contrast to the dark skies and persistent rain outside. A crowd of people milled around, eating and drinking, talking in small groups.
One of those people was Reena Raichur, originally from India. Raichur found the group about five years ago but hasn't been able to come as regularly since starting a new job.
"Today I decided to sneak out," Raichur said.
Another woman, Juliana Capdevila, excitedly greets people as they descend the amphitheater steps. Capdevila is from Argentina and has been part of the group since its inception. Her move to Minnesota was motivated by her husband's job at 3M, which is common among members of the group.
Capdevila and her husband originally lived in Apple Valley for seven years. After returning from a four-year period of living in Argentina, the couple decided to move to Woodbury "because the international community is huge."
About 12% of Woodbury residents were born outside the U.S., somewhat higher than Washington County with 7% and Minnesota as a whole with 8%, according to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. About 13% of people living in the U.S. are foreign-born.
"When we were in Apple Valley, it was an amazing community, very nice and friendly people, but on a street of 50 houses, we were the only foreigners," Capdevila said. "On my street right now ... you have people from India, Israel, China."
Bahia Alassaad is from Lebanon and has spent the past 15 years in the U.S. Alassaad has been attending International Group meetings for five years.
"This is my family now," she said.
Alassaad and Kathleen Ackermann became close friends after meeting through the group. Ackermann grew up in South Dakota but lived in Germany for 34 years after meeting her husband while she was serving in the U.S. Army.
Ackermann heard about the group after deciding to move back to the U.S., and though she was hesitant at first because she hadn't been born abroad, her more than three decades in another country eventually convinced her to attend.
"If you've ever lived in another country where you don't understand the language and culture, we share that common bond of having to go through that," she said. "This is like going to a little United Nations."
Though some members cycle in and out, Vale said she estimates 50 countries have been represented over the years.
"I think what's really important now is to come and find out how much alike you are instead of how different you are," Ackermann said. "It's a little place to just share our stories."
Bonnie Iverson is an original member of the group. She was born in St. Paul but joined because she always valued meeting people of different backgrounds - it's just how she was raised, she said.
"With our world and the turmoil it's in now - I mean, you see the news - it's so important for us to make connections across cultural boundaries," Iverson said.
The people Iverson invites to the monthly meetings often ask her what the agenda for the day will be. Most of the time, there isn't one.
"We have a chance to be with each other, to talk with each other, to get to know each other, which is so different from a formal meeting, and I think that's probably one of its strengths," she said. "I think the fact that it's based on friendships rather than an agenda makes it strong."
Capdevila, from Argentina, has recently turned her propensity for welcoming new residents into a career. A month ago she began working as a 3M guide, helping families on assignment with the corporation and new to the country do things like find schools for their kids, find a place to live or open a bank account.
Eight years on from discovering this passion through the International Group, Capdevila is pleased with its growth and evolution.
"At the beginning, we knew each other," she said. "Now, every time that I come, I meet new people."