Q&A: Zohra Zori on Alight’s Work With Displaced Communities

The Minneapolis-based humanitarian organization assists globally, from guiding families to safety amid the war in Ukraine to welcoming Afghan refugees in Minnesota
Zohra Zori grew up in Afghanistan and resettled in Pakistan
Zohra Zori grew up in Afghanistan and resettled in Pakistan

Photo by Yasmin Yassin

Zohra Zori learned the importance of changing the world at a young age. Growing up in Afghanistan during the Soviet War, her family’s safety was constantly in question. “My father was a general in the military when the Soviets took over, and my mother was the president of all pharmacies in the country of Afghanistan, so our lives were in danger for many reasons,” she says. 

In 1987, Zori and her family walked for 12 days to resettle in Pakistan. They eventually received political asylum and were relocated to the United States, where Zori’s experiences as a refugee would continue to shape her life.

As someone who always wanted to be part of something bigger than herself, Zori was drawn to working in the nonprofit sector. She spent a large part of the last decade building a successful career in nonprofit leadership and philanthropy but aspired to something deeper. “I missed being connected and having that taste of direct impact,” she says.

When she came across Alight, Zori realized it was the “missing puzzle piece” in combining her personal experiences with her professional goals. The Minneapolis-based humanitarian aid organization works to build meaningful lives for and with displaced communities. Alight spans global efforts, from guiding families to safety amid the war in Ukraine, to responding to the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, to welcoming Afghan refugees in Minnesota.

Upon joining the Alight team as chief marketing and engagement officer earlier this year, Zori has been able to foster a symbiotic relationship with the organization. “Being able to bring my own experience with displacement into my work not only helps create this ambiance of comfort for my colleagues and for the customers that we’re serving, but it also helps to inform our work so I can reflect on the experiences that I’ve had myself,” she says. “What I have discovered in my tenure with Alight so far is that it really does feel like home.”

We chatted with Zori in March about the extent of Alight’s work and partnerships, its mission to achieve abundance for displaced communities, and how Minnesotans can get involved.

Alight provides aid to people across the world and right here in Minnesota. What goes into the decision-making process as to where, and to whom, the organization sends its resources?

Alight focuses on those [who] are displaced by conflict, by social and economic exclusion, and by climate change. There are layers and layers of different populations and subthemes that we support, but most of our work takes place in the global South. We zero in on countries and communities where we feel like we can have the most impact; what that means is we typically have affiliates, a staff base, or partners already on the ground that understand the context and have the cultural competency. I think it’s easy for humanitarian organizations to spread themselves thin, but we want to go deep. Our mission, after all, really does call for going beyond basic needs and getting to that sustainable impact. We have over 3,000 staff members in places that are often deemed the most vulnerable in the world, so we really lean into them and our partners to decide where there needs to be strategic investment of our resources. 

Speaking of your mission, the word “abundance” comes up frequently across Alight’s messaging. What does this sense of abundance look like for displaced communities? And how does this goal impact Alight’s work?

We’re really envisioning a world where every human being, including our own customers, is recognized as full, and whole, and worthy of being truly seen. What I’ve noticed in beginning to experience the results of our work is that we’re looking at things from the lens of hope and possibility versus scarcity. So, you might see imagery from other humanitarian organizations of children starving or a lot of devastating things that are happening in the world. I think those do need to be seen, but Alight tends to really lean into the abundance, hope, and dignity that are possibilities.

Can you talk about some of Alight’s efforts that illustrate this mission?

Yeah, I can give you a clear example. Our Welcome Home Initiative was set up to welcome displaced Afghans to Minnesota after the Taliban took over in 2021. It started with 131 fully furnished homes, stocked with cultural and religious items to make sure the new neighbors were comfortable. We also worked with Afghan women and youth on other efforts to create a sense of community and belonging. Alight’s Women’s Sewing Socials were co-designed in response to hearing that many Afghan women in Minnesota were experiencing feelings of isolation and loneliness.

When we asked how we could help, the women requested a space to gather together, sew, and be in community. This turned into a weekly social meet-up where the women can come to build friendships, access additional resources, and build their skills in sewing. Alight provides the necessary childcare, transportation, sewing machines, materials, tools, lunch, and interpreters. We’ve heard such wonderful stories about the value it brings to these women, and it’s helping to inform other initiatives we can support in the future.

So, when we talk about abundance, it’s not just about food, water, an apartment, and some random furniture that we got donated. It’s like, how do we make sure you have quality materials around you, as if you had built this space for yourself? How do you build your community? We’re not simply addressing the basic needs.

“We’re really envisioning a world where every human being, including our own customers, is recognized as full, whole, and worthy of truly being seen,” Zori says.
“We’re really envisioning a world where every human being, including our own customers, is recognized as full, whole, and worthy of truly being seen,” Zori says.

Photo by Yasmin Yassin

It seems like a lot of Alight’s work is largely collaborative with other organizations, companies, and even government entities. When partnering with the State of Minnesota, for example, how is Alight impacted by local leadership and political administrations?

I think what we have experienced consistently, over a 45-year history in Minnesota, is ongoing support from different governmental entities. I don’t think there’s been a real break in that. But we’ve worked very closely on both sides of the aisle in Minnesota’s congressional delegations, as well as with the governors’ offices. Most recently, we partnered with the Department of Human Services and several other amazing local organizations, like Building Blocks [a nonprofit that works to rebuild urban communities].

And at the international level, how do Alight’s partnerships function to provide on-the-ground aid in places like Ukraine, Syria, and Turkey?

Our partnership with Airbnb.org is a great example of a really natural partnership that developed in response to the war in Ukraine. Our CEO, Jocelyn Wyatt, sits on the board, so we were already familiar with their values and capabilities. Alight had stationed a crisis response team on the Poland-Ukraine border days after the war began, and we knew safe housing was a critical need for Ukrainian families.

Once we connected with Airbnb.org, it was clear that we shared a common goal in response to this crisis: to provide a safe haven to people and families when they need it most, and to enable them to plan their next steps in a space that protects their dignity, humanity, and hope. With their funding and support, Alight has been able to provide over 73,000 nights of free, safe, and secure temporary housing throughout Poland and in several other European countries. So, Airbnb.org has been an incredible partner, and I think it’s a really great example of corporate social responsibility. You have this powerhouse brand that is really stepping up in a time of great need and making their service freely available to people that need it the most.

Certain issues, such as natural disasters, often arise quickly and without warning. What are Alight’s immediate steps following an unforeseen crisis?

When something happens in the world, there’s a bit of a gut check in terms of feasibility. Is this a place that Alight has already identified as a geographic location where we can have a deep impact? Since we’re going beyond basic needs, we know we can’t be all things to all people. Once that’s concluded, then we immediately begin connecting with our local partners on the ground to find out what the needs are. The third step is taking action around a couple of different things. One is funding—how do we help to generate and activate new funding to support that specific initiative? The other is visibility—how do we start to amplify what’s happening and what Alight’s efforts are, so that our world and our followers can be better educated on what’s happening there, too? A fourth step is debriefing as an organization of what we could have done differently, or better, or more of.

What are some ways in which Minnesotans can help Alight in its global and local efforts?

They can donate to Alight at wearealight.org to support the organization and our efforts. A second thing is they can purchase a piece of art from aid2art.org, which is our art show and campaign created to benefit Ukrainian artists and designers that have been affected by the war. The third way is to become a sponsor. Alight is an inaugural Private Sponsor Organization supporting a U.S. government initiative called Welcome Corps, which allows Americans to privately sponsor refugees. Through that, we’re looking to build sponsorship circles, which Minnesotans get involved in by emailing us at hellohello@werealight.org.