‘At some point they’re just our neighbors’ — Afghans find haven along San Antonio’s ‘Silk Road’

Nestled between San Antonio’s Medical Center hospitals, doctor’s offices, coffee shops, the VA, and corporate headquarters is a growing community of people who have settled from halfway around the world.

By Joey Palacios, Texas Public RadioJune 29, 2023 9:19 am, ,

From Texas Public Radio:

This story is part of a new TPR series Between Here and Home about how Afghans are navigating life in San Antonio after the war.

Nestled between San Antonio’s Medical Center hospitals, doctor’s offices, coffee shops, the VA, and corporate headquarters, is a growing community of people who have settled from halfway around the world.

It’s a typical busy Sunday afternoon at Al Madina market off of Wurzbach Road, the main commercial thoroughfare.

It’s a small grocery store and meat market catering to Afghans or anyone in the neighborhood in need of Halal meats that are prepared in accordance with Islamic law.

Faqeer Aman is one of the owners. He took TPR on a tour of the place.

“This is all the meat section. This cooler only has beef. And this cooler you see lamb and goat,” he said.

It’s one of a handful of places in San Antonio where people can get Halal meat.

“People come and they choose which piece they like so they can pick it up and we cut it for them by that cutting machine,” he said.

Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio

Faqeer Aman, one of the owners of Al Madina market.

Aman, an Afghan, bought this grocery store a year ago from a Moroccan man and business has picked up – with many of his customers being new arrivals from Afghanistan.

He came to San Antonio eight years ago on a special immigrant visa after working with the US military.

“Most of my friends advised me to come to San Antonio because the cost of living here in Texas was kind of easy to live here,” he said.

He said he’s happy here in San Antonio. The heat has been a little hard to take at times, but he’s used to it.

“When I came here in 2015, there was only a few people here are out of the San Antonio area,” he said. “But now, as you can see [Afghan] people everywhere.

Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio

The owners of Al Madina market stand outside their store on June 18, 2023.

An area nonprofit called Culturingua tries to elevate San Antonians from South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Its CEO Nadia Mavrakis said San Antonio welcomed about 4,000 Afghan refugees right after the Taliban takeover.

“But then another 2,000 came from across the United States through secondary migration because there’s such a large Afghan community here and so many additional Afghans came to be in San Antonio, along with other family and friends that already lived here,” he said.

But Mavrakis said this area’s identity as a hub for migration started decades ago.

“One is that there is this hub that grew a few decades ago with new students coming from the Middle East, North Africa, Asia region — studying here in San Antonio,” she said. “And the Wurzbach Road Corridor started to become the hub for where those residents lived.

Dan Katz / Texas Public Radio

The Islamic Center of San Antonio on June 18, 2023.

The area is home to the Islamic Center of San Antonio, which opened in 1997 and two other mosques have since been built nearby.

As the immigrant and refugee population has grown here, so have nonprofits who contract with the state department to resettle refugees.

“That area had a lot of affordable apartment complexes that the refugee community was able to be set up in apartments, so they initially began to integrate and settle into San Antonio,” she said. “And then from there, different entities began cropping up that that supported it.

She points to the Newcomer program at Northside ISD as well as English classes being offered at local churches and the grocery stores and restaurants that serve them all along Wurzbach Road.

“What you see up and down this corridor is representation from every single country or region that the ancient Silk Road touched,” said City Councilman Manny Pelaez, who represents the area.

He’s pushing for the Wurzbach corridor to be known as San Antonio’s Silk Road district.

“So the Silk Road designation is an effort to actually recognize and speak out loud the contributions made by these communities and celebrate them,” he said.

That designation would open the door to state and federal money for development in the area —something Mavrakis said is badly needed.

“So investments to support the Wurzbach Road, pedestrian roadways, investments to enable creative placemaking and public art in the corridor, to enable the community residents’ experiences and cultural identities to be recognized, and most importantly to ensure that they have to have a place in shaping the destiny of their lives and their families lives here in San Antonio.”

But Mavrakis and other refugee advocates say the area needs more green spaces —spots where community can grow.

It just makes people happy to see something green and productive, which we don’t get a lot in here,” said Sandra Leifeste, pastor at the House of Prayer Lutheran Church.

The church property houses a community garden that’s tended by local immigrants and resettlement workers.

Texas Public Radio

House of Prayer Pastor Sandra Leifeste in front of the community garden her church has set up.

“We get a big load of dirt and they come, and they put new soil down and plant a new crop of something appropriate for the season. Here we have squash.”

For many newly-arrived immigrants living in the area, money is tight —and the garden helps them make ends meet. There’s corn, tomatoes, zucchini, mint, basil, and much more. It feeds about 200 people in all.

They are thrifty people. These blossoms are food. There’s other things they eat the leaves of,” she said.

More than anything, Leifeste said the garden helps reorient those who’ve been forced to leave their entire way of life behind.

A grandparent came here with her grandchild one time, and she became the teacher again,” Leifeste said. “And she was able to share her knowledge and to share what she had learned, whereas it wasn’t something she’d been able to do here in the culture she wasn’t able to navigate.”

Leifeste hopes refugees start to feel rooted in San Antonio—like they have a sense of agency over their lives—and a community that cares.

You know you can’t call them refugees forever,” she said. “At some point they’re just our neighbors.

TPR’s Carson Frame contributed to this report.

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