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An Afghan chamber of commerce will open in St. Louis to promote entrepreneurship

International Institute of St. Louis officials brainstorm program ideas while seated around tables
International Institute of St. Louis
International Institute of St. Louis officials brainstorm program ideas at the Cortex Innovation Community center for the institute's Afghan Chamber of Commerce that will open in February in south St. Louis.

The International Institute of St. Louis will open an Afghan Community Center and a national Afghan Chamber of Commerce in south St. Louis in February to help Afghans maintain their identity and learn entrepreneurship skills.

Afghans can take Farsi and English language classes and attend public speaking events and after-school programs and workshops to help them thrive while living in the region. The chamber will offer Afghans business training and financial literacy classes that will help promote entrepreneurship.

The new business programs and classes could help Afghans build community and businesses in St. Louis, said Moji Sidiqi, the institute’s Afghan Community Support program manager.

“The chamber of commerce is going to build opportunities for financial growth,” Sidiqi said. “That's really going to take the trajectory of the Afghan economic state to another level.”

The new community center will sit inside the old Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis building off South Grand Avenue near Gravois Park. The chamber of commerce will operate from within the center.

Over the past year, the institute helped resettle more than 700 Afghans who fled Afghanistan because they feared for their lives as the Taliban took control of their home country.

Some of those Afghans who come to St. Louis have entrepreneurial backgrounds and want to start businesses in their new home city, said institute CEO and President Arrey Obenson.

“They came here as refugees … [and] are now taxpayers. They are now employees,” Obenson said. “They are now in many cases, entrepreneurs, many of them are doing DoorDash and Uber. So they are really already significantly adding to the economic prosperity of the community.”

Obenson hopes the community center and the chamber of commerce will encourage other Afghans to move to St. Louis to take advantage of the resources and add to the region’s economy.

So far, 131 Afghans have moved to the region from other cities across the nation.

“Hopefully, we see many of them setting up businesses with the help that they would get from the resources developed by the Afghan Chamber of Commerce that should eventually lead to economic growth,” Obenson said.

The chamber of commerce also will offer entrepreneurship and skills training courses to women, including sewing and cooking classes to inspire Afghan women to start clothing companies or restaurants.

Being a woman entrepreneur is typically not encouraged in Afghan culture. Hopefully the programs inspire Afghan women to gain business acumen, Sidiqi said.

“We are taking a demographic of people, and putting them in their own space where they can connect with their own identity, but also thrive in a new city, which is their new home,” she said.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.