An estimated 4,000 Afghan men, women and children are making a home in San Antonio since fleeing their home country during and after the U.S. withdrawal in September.
The work to provide those refugees with housing and other support for their basic needs has been led by the City of San Antonio and several nonprofit groups, including one known as Culturingua.
Founded in 2018 by Nadia Mavrakis, Culturingua’s mission is focused on honoring the people and heritage of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia in San Antonio. The organization will use a recent grant from the Open Society Foundations to partner with other agencies in helping the newcomers move toward self-reliance.
The $150,000 grant from the foundation started by George Soros, a Hungarian-American billionaire, came as a result of a partnership between Culturingua and San Antonio through the city’s membership in the international nonprofit Welcoming America.
The funding will allow Culturingua to expand its efforts beyond the initial phase of integrating Afghans through programs aimed at welcoming them and getting them involved in the community to helping them achieve economic mobility, said Tino Gallegos, the city’s immigration liaison.
That could be through job placement, work training programs or entrepreneurship so they can move toward self-sufficiency, he said. The assistance of Culturingua is important in that process.
“For [refugees] to navigate these systems on their own, it’s difficult,” Gallegos said. “Sometimes it takes a community partner to [point out] a concern that people have or these fears that they have, or this is where we’re not connecting and try and bridge that gap.”
Culturingua oversees multiple programs in schools and neighborhoods to promote cross-cultural understanding in the community but also help immigrants settle in their new country and learn about civic engagement, such as through a recent cleanup day at the Rock Creek draining easement near Wurzbach Road and Gardendale.
About 60 people, including children, attended the event and picked up everything from old trash bags to beer cans, and cleared out the remnants of a former homeless camp.
Assisting immigrants in securing meaningful work is also part of Culturingua’s mission.
In October, Mavrakis participated in Philanthropitch, the local nonprofit funding contest, and won $62,000 to support Culturingua’s culinary business program, Nourish to Flourish!
“[The program] helps them develop business plans to enter the culinary field,” said Mavrakis, Culturingua’s CEO. It also gives recent immigrants hands-on opportunities, through a food truck, to gain experience working in a commercial kitchen, learn how to comply with regulations and try out their business ideas.
A similar program in fiber arts and sewing supplies the newcomers with sewing machines and helps them market products on the craft website Etsy.
To support their entrepreneurial efforts, Culturingua teaches immigrants who come from cash-based societies how to navigate the U.S. banking system.
The nonprofit is also working to become the first licensed food handling certification trainer in Texas with courses delivered in Afghan languages, Pashto and Dari.
Mavrakis said Culturingua is developing other programs to teach customer service and customer relations management systems.
With the grant money from Open Society, the nonprofit plans to expand those programs and partner with others offered through the city’s Workforce Development Office, the Economic Development Department, SA Ready to Work and Workforce Solutions Alamo.
Culturingua will work with SA Ready to Work officials to identify training programs and career paths that align with the trade skills that many of the Afghans already possess, then help them overcome language barriers to pass exams and obtain certifications.
It’s also partnering with the city’s World Heritage Office, which oversees San Antonio’s designation as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, to promote Afghan food traditions and businesses.
“We have lots of rich, cultural heritage from San Antonio history, but also a lot of these emerging new influences that are increasingly part of this culture of San Antonio’s cultural culture, and so we want to showcase that,” Mavrakis said.
Established in 1979, Open Society made grants in 2020 totaling over $1 billion to a variety of independent groups working in justice, democratic governance and human rights in 120 countries.
“Local government leaders are playing a critical role in welcoming Afghans and helping them to settle into new communities,” stated Laleh Ispahani, co-director of Open Society-U.S., in a press release announcing the grant award. “In making this grant and others like it we recognize that partnerships between local government and community groups are essential in building inclusive communities and contributing to a growing welcoming movement across the country.”
Originally from the Dallas area, Mavrakis is the daughter of a political refugee from Libya. Though successful working as a consultant in business strategy and finance, Mavrakis found the work less personally fulfilling than she had hoped.
She said felt called to aid the growing population of immigrants and refugees from halfway around the world. And as someone who was “straddling two cultures and identities,” Mavrakis hopes to see every culture fully reflected in the broader San Antonio community.
This article has been updated to correct the year in which Culturingua was founded.