Nonprofit trains Bay Area immigrants to become baristas
By Lou Fancher
The robust scent of coffee and soft chatter of baristas-in-training was abruptly shattered by the rattle and hiss of espresso machines at 1951 Coffee Company’s training cafe. Pouring boiling water over fresh coffee grounds, Amanuel, a 27-year-old man from Eritrea enrolled in the Oakland-based nonprofit’s intensive two-week program, is generous with everything but his surname.
“I fled my country. I asked to go legally, but they didn’t allow it. I fled to be here, with my family,” he said. Leaving behind employment analyzing blood samples as a medical professional in a lab, Amanuel sacrificed re-entry to his homeland for at least three years.
Amanuel is in the United States legally. 1951 works exclusively with legal refugees, those granted asylum or holders of special immigrant visas such as Amanuel, whose country will not allow him to return for three years or more because he left without proper documentation. He is wary and protects himself by limiting the use of his full name.
Like other participants in the barista training program co-founded by Doug Hewitt and Rachel Taber in 2015 and launched in June 2016, there are few limitations on Amanuel’s ambition and work ethic. “If I practice more, I get confidence,” he said, applying the principle to refining his English; providing swift, American-style customer service; and improving his coffee-making ability.
1951 Coffee Company provides refugees resettled in the Bay Area with assistance through vocational education at the training facility at Regeneration Church in Oakland and employment at the company’s café on Channing Way in Berkeley. Interview, application and job training has graduates of the program finding work at Blue Bottle, Dropbox, Starbucks and other specialty coffee establishments.
The company name is inspired by the year the Union Nations defined and set guidelines to protect refugees.
A $63,000 “Opportunity for All” Starbucks Foundation grant announced in mid-August will allow 1951 to train an additional 85 baristas over the next year.
Hewitt said being selected by Starbucks as one of 41 nonprofits to receive support means not only accelerated expansion in Oakland, but also an opportunity to expand the program and serve unmet needs of refugees in other cities in the United States. The 36-year-old Oakland resident’s backstory—a tale of strangers’ serendipitous generosity and intentional career interests—explains how he came to appreciate the value of refugee assistance operations.
“I lived in China for two years and when I first arrived, I was looking for a place to live. A Chinese man who was an English teacher overheard me talking in a grocery store. He offered to help in any way; he found me a landlord, an apartment. He became a friend,” Hewitt said.
Moving to California in 2007 to study theology and intercultural studies at Golden Gate Seminary placed Hewitt behind a counter at a Starbucks. A co-worker’s long, complicated journey from Eritrea to Marin sparked and continues to fuel Hewitt’s interest in refugee rescue programs.
The hardest part of educating people about refugees and asylum seekers is weeding through misinformation. “You’re not starting from a positive position. A refugee doesn’t come to the U.S. looking at just good schools and good jobs. Their deep longing is to be at home, but staying at home is not an option and they must make the best of it,” he said.
Speaking English, learning high-level skills and building confidence are the hardest arcs to crest for the seven students in the current course who arrived from Eritrea, China and Syria.
Amy, who asks that her full name not be used to protect the safety of family still in China, arrived in 2015.
“I was alone. I didn’t know anyone, had no friend. Where was bank? Where was job?” she said.
She found employment and community through generosity like that which Hewitt experienced. Strangers she met at church hired her to teach math and help their mostly English-speaking Chinese-American children improve their Chinese.
Amy is now a graduate student studying accounting at Golden Gate University. “I want to be a professional CPA,” she said. “With this training, I can make money for food, rent, school. I can practice my English. Here, there is always opportunity.”
Opportunity made real is found in Meg Karki. The 28-year-old refugee, a legal U.S. citizen as of 2016, left Bhutan after he and his Hindu family were ousted in 1990. After 19 years in a refugee camp, Karki at last joined his parents in 2011 following a four-year application process.
“I came here with hope. In the camp, there was such hardship, but here, everything is easy,” he said.
But it wasn’t simple. With a high school education but a blank job resume, Karki said support from European-based International Rescue Committee found him work at Chipotle and led him to 1951’s program.
“Now I am a trainer. I can give students an idea of what can be done in this country,” he said.
Karki said he also receives education from his students.
“They’re hard-working, willing. They don’t want to get social service benefits sitting at home. They want work. What I’ve learned is that they never quit,” he said.