1951 Coffee Company hosts event in support of refugee rights

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Daniela Cervantes/Staff

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1951 Coffee Company and the East Bay chapter of the United Nations Association of the United States of America, or UNA, partnered to hold an event called “Refugee Rights are Human Rights” in honor of Human Rights Day at the coffee shop Thursday evening.

The event facilitated discussions relevant to the refugee community in the Bay Area, including supporting refugee resettlement and raising awareness about people and organizations aiding refugees in other countries.

Doug Hewitt, a co-founder of 1951 Coffee Company — a nonprofit dedicated to employing refugees — kicked off the event by discussing the founding of the company. According to Hewitt, his former position as an employment specialist at the International Rescue Committee, or IRC, revealed a clear gap between refugee resettlement and success in the new country.

“I wanted to create a company where we provide refugees with a place where we understand the challenges they face while also allowing them to accomplish the linguistic, social and financial abilities they need to thrive,” Hewitt said during the event.

In an attempt to bridge this gap, Hewitt and fellow co-founder Rachel Taber absorbed an unused space in a local church to start their flagship store. The coffee shop currently hosts a two-week training program to equip trainees with basic skills needed to work in the coffee industry.

Ali Fayazi, a refugee himself, went through the aforementioned program and now serves as a barista manager at the coffee shop. Fayazi had gone through the IRC to find English classes, jobs and interviews in the Bay Area. He enrolled in the training program and was offered a job as a barista at the headquarters of San Francisco-based company Dropbox, where he worked for about a year before joining 1951 Coffee Company.

“The staff is like a family; you come with a reason to do things here,” Fayazi said during the event.

Also during the event, Melinda Howard-Herrarte, president of the East Bay chapter of the UNA, recited articles 13 through 15 of the United Nation’s 1949 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a means of illustrating the reason behind the meeting.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country,” Howard-Herrarte recited. “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

Ed Zhong, a coordinator for Thrive, a new initiative at the IRC, highlighted some of the new actions the group has taken, including the implementation of tech career panels.

“For a refugee, it can be a little overwhelming,” Zhong said during the event. “One of the things we wanted to show people is that there aren’t just computer science or programming backgrounds in the tech industry — there are a lot of different pathways to those same jobs.”

Executive Director of the Middle East Children’s Alliance Zeiad Abbas Shamrouch shared his experiences as someone who was born and raised in a Palestinian refugee camp. He said during the event that Palestinians are “reduced to numbers” and that he understands the struggles of all refugees.

The event was brought to a close by author and cross-cultural communications trainer Jon Lurie, who discussed differences in culture between refugees and Americans.

“How shall I explain the sea to a frog that has never left its pond? I would assume that most of us in this room have never had a refugee experience and have never had an immigrant experience,” Lurie said. “If you don’t understand the cultural realities of various refugees and their cultures, sometimes it’s difficult to be compassionate because your blindness to their cultural reality stands in the way.”

Contact Alexa VanHooser at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dailycalexa.