New Bay Area Nonprofit Turns Refugees Into Baristas

In one of the more novel approaches seen in response to the recent refugee crisis, the 1951 Coffee Company hopes to help refugees gain footing in their new lives while teaching them a skill that can help them find work anywhere.

Refugees face a lot of challenges integrating into new societies: They have to learn new customs and new languages, and they may even struggle to find a job that matches their skills.

The latter issue—made more acute due to the influx of refugees from Syria—has led to the launch of some nonprofits.

One of those nonprofits, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, is taking a novel approach to the employment issue, and it’s an approach that coffee fans will definitely appreciate. The 1951 Coffee Company, launched last year in Oakland, California, runs a barista training program focused on giving refugees immediately marketable job skills. The group, named for the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention that defined global guidelines for protecting refugees, is also focused on teaching the broader public about the challenges that refugees face.

A New Approach to Refugee Aid

The group was launched by Doug Hewitt and Rachel Taber, two former employees of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), another group focused on refugee aid. They see the 1951 Coffee Company as a way to expand the mission of the IRC in a practical way, while offering solutions to the weaknesses within the IRC’s model—specifically, the requirement that refugees be economically self-sufficient within six months, a time when they’re still coming to grips with their new environment.

“I realized with all the efforts we were doing at the agency, there needed to be something in the community that could come alongside … that could help that process along the way,” Hewitt told The Daily Californian.

Thus far, the nonprofit’s efforts have been focused on training baristas to work at coffee shops around the Bay Area, but the group plans to get a deeper foothold this fall by opening a coffee shop in Berkeley—a city that knows a thing or two about coffee shops. (The university town is home to Caffe Mediterraneum, one of the longest-operating coffee shops in the United States and a counterculture icon. Caffe Med, as it’s called, is located just a block away from the forthcoming 1951 Coffee Company location.)

An Opportunity Falling Into Place

The location of the coffee shop is no accident; Hewitt and Taber’s decision to move forward with the coffee-shop idea, which they had been playing with for months, came after Taber struck up a conversation with a pastor at the city’s First Presbyterian Church, where the coffee shop will be located.

“In order for this to take place, we knew from the very beginning we would have to have buy-in from the community at large,” Hewitt told the local publication Nosh. “When Rachel said that [First Presbyterian was] considering letting us use that space, it was like things were just falling into our lap.”

The shop, designed by a Norwegian firm, is structured to drive conversation between refugees and the customers looking for some roasted-bean juice. The shop will also rely on advocacy elements. In comments to Nosh, Hewitt emphasized that advocacy will be structured in a way that encourages a positive message about refugees.

“We want to do it in a way that really shows the things we see in refugees, which are their strength, their endurance, their courage, and also their hope for the future,” he said.

(via the 1951 Coffee Company Facebook page)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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