The first-time players laughed and lobbed bright yellow balls in every direction, swinging their paddles with increasing confidence.

They looked at home on that Minnesota pickleball court.

They were home.

"It's like people say — Minnesota nice," said Atefa, a recent medical school graduate who fled Afghanistan with her family when the Taliban seized power. She stood smiling on one of the indoor courts at Pickle in the Middle in Brooklyn Park.

Back in Afghanistan, the Taliban decided that a sixth-grade education is good enough for girls. Here, Atefa can continue her medical studies.

She came expecting to find the America that Hollywood depicts on screen — "a very rushed country; people are just running around and everyone's so busy."

"Coming to Minnesota, I had to change my idea," she said with a laugh. "In Minnesota, they're so cool and calm. Maybe that's because of the weather?"

It was one discovery, among the thousand discoveries you make when you leave one home for another on the other side of the world. Which brought these players to Brooklyn Park, and the courts of Pickle in the Middle, for a taste of what makes Minnesota nice.

Once a month, the humanitarian nonprofit Alight organizes an outing for the women. They arrange child care, organize transportation and choose that month's adventure. Bowling, ice skating, a museum trip, a Twins game. The only aim is to have fun and live your best Minnesota life.

Nine women joined the pickleball outing on Friday. A graduate student, an artist, a widow with six children.

They were careful to shield their faces from the cameras and their full names from this story. They all have families, back in Afghanistan, and the Taliban is watching.

Their translators, who had been translators for U.S. forces during the long years of war, worked with Pickle in the Middle instructors ahead of time to make sure they understood the rules of this wiffle ball-based sport that looks a little bit like ping-pong, a little bit like tennis and a lot like fun.

"We're repairing the social fabric," said Sonia Anunciacion, team leader for Alight's Afghan response project. "They look so much healthier than they did a year ago, and they're happier."

Minneapolis-based Alight, formerly known as the American Refugee Committee, worked to ensure that newly arrived families had furniture and other comforts in their new homes and apartments in the Twin Cities.

But home is more than four walls.

Hospitality is the core of Afghanistan's culture. Visitors are welcomed into homes and lavished with tea and delicious food. Life in Minnesota could feel lonely sometimes.

"We had the ongoing trend of them feeling very depressed, isolated, and now they're scattered around the Twin Cities," said Anunciacion, whose parents came from Afghanistan. "They don't have the sense of community they had when they were staying at the hotel or the military base."

So Alight set about repairing the social fabric with needle and thread. The nonprofit collected sewing machines and started a sewing circle, where women could sew, socialize and even meet with counselors the nonprofit arranged on site. At the end of the program, the women were given the sewing machines to keep.

From there, they moved on to field trips — weekday trips for the women, weekend outings once a month for Afghan youths.

"It was so understandable that they wouldn't crack a smile back then," Anunciacion said. "They were depressed, they felt guilty about leaving their families back home, they were worried they'd be safe."

Almost everyone was smiling on Friday. It's difficult to play pickleball, or say pickleball, or type pickleball without smiling. Shouts of laughter echoed off the walls of Pickle in the Middle.

One of Anunciacion's colleagues once asked a woman who had lived here for years how long it took her to build a life in this new land.

"It took me," she told him, "a lifetime."