Fatima Said had never heard of Rochester, Minnesota.

But when war broke out in her home country of Bosnia in 1992, she was given 24 hours to leave the country. After being split up and reunited, spending time in a refugee camp, and facing an uncertain future, Said and her family eventually landed in Rochester.

“When we arrived here,” Said recalls, “nobody was happier than me, because when we walked out from the plane, there were a lot of people with signs in Bosnian, with flowers, with baskets of fruit. And I asked my brother, ‘Who are those people?’ And he said, ‘Those are people from St. Pius Church and Assisi Heights in Rochester. People that decided to help you and your family until you are on your own.’”

The memory still brings Said to tears. The simple, profound kindness of those strangers has inspired Said’s life mission: to help immigrants and refugees in southeastern Minnesota become an integral part of their community. in 2005, she joined Project FINE as the organization’s Executive Director and now spends each day fulfilling that mission.

“Project FINE has done a really great job of doing some deep listening and then figuring out how they can best support immigrants and refugees based on what they’ve learned in the community,” says Janelle Waldock, VP of Community Health and Health Equity for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. And those needs are shifting all over Minnesota.

“We know that our rural communities are growing increasingly demographically diverse at a really rapid pace,” Waldock explains. “So Winona is a great example of a community that, as a regional hub, is kind of learning how to grapple with that – both the opportunities and the challenges that come with significant change in a community, and how to highlight and showcase immigrants and refugees as an important part of the community.”

Through the Welcoming Table program, Project FINE creates a gathering opportunity for everyone, from longtime Winona residents (including Mayor Mark Peterson) to newly settled immigrants and refugees. By offering a free dinner and encouraging storytelling and interactions, Project FINE is helping to create a more unified, healthier community.

“If we are able to change the narrative, based on the community and have the community be a part of changing the narrative, then they’re a part of the solution, they’re a part of telling their own health story,” says Nhia Daryoushfar, Community Initiative Manager, Blue Cross Blue Shield Center for Prevention. “And I think that’s where we need to get to.”

As for Said, the complex challenge of building health in community boils down to one thing: kindness.

“You just kind of share that kindness further,” says Said.” Or how you Americans say? ‘Pay it forward,’ right? When you go through having a good life, and overnight you lose everything, and someone else somewhere else – a stranger – gave you a chance and opportunity, you never stop working so hard to give back to community.”

Production Team: Alauna Yust, Jim Kron, Eric Pagel, Miles Painter

This story was created in collaboration with the Blue Cross Blue Shield Center for Prevention as part of Building Health Equity: Health Happens in Community.

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