Refugees serve up coffee in new Berkeley café

Mikaela Raphael/Staff

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“Decaf to go?” said Meg Karki, a 27-year-old Oakland resident from Bhutan and a barista at 1951 Coffee Company, to a customer from Rockridge. “I got you.”

Ordering coffee along Berkeley’s campus is an everyday act for thousands. Though this upscale coffee shop at 2410 Channing Way, which opened Sunday, has a familiar menu and seating, its eight baristas from seven different countries set it apart.

Before Karki moved to Oakland with his family, he spent 20 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, where his family fled to from their home nation of Bhutan. As he prepared beverages, his co-worker, a Syrian refugee, took the next drink order.

At 22, Karki moved to the United States, where it took him eight months to find a job. He has previously worked at Trader Joe’s and Chipotle. Karki, who was hired in part to help other refugees, spoke about how hard it was initially to get a job.

“I had no friends here, no résumé, no experience in the U.S.A.,” Karki said. “Nobody wants to hire you. You have to have experience. That experience is 1951 (Coffee) — it gives training.”

The other six employees are from Uganda, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iran and Burma. Coworkers who once lived farther than 4,500 miles away from one another now stand behind the same counter.

1951 Coffee opens after co-founders Doug Hewitt and Rachel Taber, who both previously worked with refugees in academic and professional careers, discussed the idea for nearly two years.

At 9:20 a.m. Monday morning, business was in full swing. Six minutes later, the line, 11 people deep, whittled down to one person. With orders taken and scones served, the cafe was alive with chatter and typing.

In addition to the coffee shop, the nonprofit provides barista training to refugees, asylees and immigrants whose lives were endangered after helping the United States. The name “1951” comes from the year the United Nations introduced guidelines to protect refugees.

The barista training program began in February last year and has graduated about 30 students. Diane Um, 1951 Coffee’s barista training program coordinator, works with local coffee shops and businesses, such as Blue Bottle Coffee Company, Peet’s Coffee & Tea and Dropbox Cafe at the Dropbox headquarters, to help companies understand why the graduates have limited résumés and references.

Hewitt, a former employment specialist at International Rescue Committee, or IRC, in Oakland, acknowledged that existing job training programs were long term in length and didn’t fit immediate needs for refugees, such as learning English.

“Almost everybody thinks that once you get to the U.S., things will be great,” Hewitt said. “Even refugees think that. That’s often more challenging.”

Refugees have to begin paying their own rent within two to four months after arriving, and they begin payments toward their international flights after six months of being in the United States, according to Taber.

The long journey that a refugee must go through to be resettled in a country like the United States will be displayed on one of the coffee shop’s walls, educating customers who pause to look.

Karki’s own path — including interviews with the United Nations, the International Organization for Migration and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — took more than two years of fingerprinting, medical examinations and questioning.

“Whatever the people think, they should know that refugees, they are checked through thoroughly,” Karki said, adding that he feels bad for Syrians who currently are stigmatized as a refugee group.

Taber, who also worked at the IRC, has a goal to integrate community members and refugees together, adding that ideally, a refugee would take her job.

The café has already served as a meeting ground for Berkeley’s diverse community. On Sunday morning, as the neighboring church’s doors were open, members of the Muslim Student Association became the business’s first customers.

“Every single culture and background has been in the coffee shop today,” Taber said.  “That’s the way that it should be.”

Contact Pamela Larson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @pamreporting.

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  • sven holmes

    Why couldn’t these jobs have been allocated for a college student in need of work and rent?

    Why do you need to fill your perverse need to virtue signal your “tolerance” and “charity” at the expense of our domestic population looking for employment? You would much rather take someone completely alien to the (low-skill) work and environment over someone who lives here? All in the name of what? Looking good?

    This neo-liberal position is the new white mans burden, the ultimate racism, disenfranchising domestic black and hispanic populations in a sick way to look good for all your friends. A cheap buck exploiting a refugee with no bargaining power over a citizen or African american with bargaining power but a desire to work and a stake within our community.

    • Alejandra Barrio Rodriguez

      Just want to comment on your use of the term “neo-liberal.” It is used to describe a wave of thought promoting fiscally conservative viewpoints – with origins in thinkers such as Friedman and Freidrich Hayek – that form the underpinnings of typically republican platforms. You seem to moreso be addressing contemporary progressives typically identified with the democratic party.


      I can add many other points, but I just hope that you’re trolling and not serious.

      • sven holmes


        • Jane

          Sven, there are lots of problems out there, and I’m sure that ventures that address African American and Hispanic far outnumber the ones that help refugees like this. It’s easy to devalue their good intentions by trying to point out why they aren’t focusing on something more pressing. Everyone is working on all fronts to integrate people wherever they are from – some people have just specialized in refugees like the founders of this cafe, others have specialized in the African American community. Instead of criticizing someone for doing something positive about an issue they care about, we should appreciate that they are doing something, compared to the masses that sit back like sheep and do absolutely nothing.

          • sven holmes

            I’m wondering WHY are we doing it? WHY do we need these people? WHY can’t neighboring countries who hold similar cultural values take them in? There is a tent city in either UAE or SA with 3M+ Air Conditioned tents, why not there?

            WHY must we bring these people HERE? We have many problems of our own. My criticism is that there is no good reason to bring these people. No good economic reason, no good social reason, just irresponsible virtue signaling.

          • Ai Mac

            Because America helped wage wars that displaced millions?

          • sven holmes

            You mean Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Barack Obama, George Soros, Israel, and Clinton’s State Department funded, helped, and aided FSA rebels that later dissolved and allied with Al Qaeda and ISIS? Thus descending Syria into civil war against the secular Bashar Al Assad? Against western back radical militants?

            You mean Western regime change in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen,etc.? In the name of ‘human rights’ on behalf of Israeli supremacy in the region? While funding radical Wahabist?

            This is our responsibility? Or the responsibility of elite oligarchs trying to preserve drug, oil, and trade routes? On top of this displacing millions of Syrian nationals into Europe and North America to further fuel ethnic and religious conflict. Which acts as a catalyst for surveillance states and police states.

            When will Saudi Arabia, Israel, or Qatar take any of these refugees? They’re directly responsible.

            And it is a quarter of the price to resettle a family in one of those countries instead of bringing them to a completely foreign culture. The weather is similar, similar languages are spoken, similar cuisine, similar religion, similar people, culture and society.

            We as American Citizens owe them nothing.

            We need to square away who is actually running our government (ie those Zionist/Globalist CFR affiliated stooges).

            Funny how the man who is draining this proverbial swamp is hated.