Berkeley coffee shop helps refugees by employing them

Apr 17, 2017

 

Nazira Babori moves around The 1951 Coffee Shop with ease: mixing, steaming, and grinding coffee like a pro -- but the truth is, she’s new to this, and not so long ago, she was in a very different place.

“My last job was with the United Nations as a communication consultant in the Kabul office,” she says.

Before that, she worked as a journalist in Afghanistan, her home country. There, she had it all.

“I had home, family, career, everything, but I was not safe.”

Her husband felt threatened because of his job. So last year, even though she really didn’t want to, they left. On December 5th, Babori arrived in San Francisco. She became one of nearly four thousand Special Immigrant Visa holders resettled in California in 2016. Even as an experienced traveler, with an apartment waiting for her in the Bay Area, she still had a really hard time adjusting. She worried about friends and family back home, felt childlike in her inability to communicate, and the isolation, stress, and helplessness wore on her. She didn’t leave her house.

“You know staying at home 24 hours [a day] was most difficult. For two weeks I just got sick. I just cried and said, 'I want to do something.'”

She reached out to the International Rescue Committee and told them exactly what she needed -- a job.

Someone there connected her to where she’s working right now, a coffee company in Berkeley with a mission to employ refugees.

“When refugees first come in, one of the most crucial things is helping them find a job, ” says Doug Hewitt. Hewitt and Rachel Taber founded The 1951 Coffee Company after working at the International Rescue Committee.

“The U.S. Government expects them to be economically self-sufficient within about six months of arrival, and so finding that job as quick as possible is crucial," Hewitt says.

This means shortly after arriving, a refugee is expected to pay their rent and repay their plane ticket. As Rachel Taber explains, it's this urgency that really limits their employment opportunities.

“Regardless of someone’s background, be it they were a lawyer, a doctor, a farmer, a teacher, an accountant, they will find an entry level position when they arrive,” Taber says.

Taber and Hewitt brainstormed ways they could help refugees find jobs and the coffee industry kept coming up. The positions are forward facing, so newcomers can work on their English. Plus, Oakland is one of the nation’s major coffee ports, where tons of green coffee beans are stored.

“And San Francisco and Oakland are first and third highest paying barista incomes in the country," Taber adds.

So, they founded the 1951 Coffee Company. Hewitt says they named it after the year the United Nations first defined the guidelines for the protection of refugees.

“We saw that as a very inspirational moment historically, and we want to be a part of that protection and that ongoing building process.”

They initially launched a training program to get as many refugees into the coffee industry as possible. Then in January, just five days before President Trump’s immigration ban, they opened their own cafe: The 1951 Coffee Shop.

“We have ten baristas from seven different countries, that represents seven different refugee communities that are here in the Bay Area.”

Nazira Babori is one of them, and right now she’s mixing up a cappuccino with her colleague Meg Karki, a refugee from Bhutan. Their shared experience as refugees creates a sense of support.

“We feel like a family. We don't have family here, but we make a new family here. Everyone just takes care of each other," Babori says.

As they prep an iced latte, customers of all different ages, all different backgrounds, sip on their lattes and learn about the challenges that refugees face through the infographics that decorate the walls.

“We'd always thought that we would bring people in with coffee and then hopefully foster conversations around refugees and gain support — and it's actually been the opposite. It's been the support of refugees that draws people in.”

Babori and the other baristas see that, and it makes them feel good.

“Some of them want to know where are you from, they want to know about our stories and our situation, and at least they come and say ‘life is going to be ok, don't worry’. These comments make us happy,” Babori says.

 

That’s not to say that Babori feels completely at home now, or isn’t sometimes frustrated with what she had to leave behind. But compared to three months ago, she’s in a better place. She's happy that she's back to work, and hopeful for the future.