Refugee-focused nonprofit 1951 Coffee Company heads to Berkeley

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

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Batool Rawoas doesn’t like the taste of coffee.

But as a young refugee just starting college, Rawoas has grounded herself in the United States through her work at 1951 Coffee Company, a nonprofit dedicated to training and employing refugees and asylees. After several months of successful barista training programs based in Oakland, the nonprofit is set to open up a coffee shop in Berkeley later this fall.

“Having this program is a great opportunity to engage with the community (and) have new skills,” said Rawoas, who left Syria about four years ago with her family and moved to the United States last year. “It will just make you feel like, ‘Yes, you came to the right country.’ ”

The idea for 1951 Coffee Company — which officially gained its nonprofit status last year and takes its name from the 1951 Refugee Convention at which the United Nations first set guidelines for refugee protections — had been brewing for some time, said co-founder Doug Hewitt.

After graduate school, he worked as a coffee roaster while volunteering at the Oakland office of the International Rescue Committee, or IRC. After being hired as an employment specialist by the IRC in 2012, Hewitt helped refugees connect with potential employers and organized basic customer service classes.

But as Hewitt began overseeing the resettlement program for refugees, he and co-founder Rachel Taber saw limitations in the agency’s ability to provide additional economic support. Refugees typically are expected to be economically self-sufficient within six months, according to Hewitt, but those expectations can be daunting for many who might be just beginning to learn English and American customs.

“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 said.

For many refugees coming into the Bay Area, the high market rents are an additional obstacle for getting acclimated to their new home, said Hisham Zawil, resettlement manager at the Oakland office of the IRC. He added that while about 800 refugees are settled by local agencies in the area per fiscal year, a lack of United States-based work experience on a resume can make job hunting difficult.

“(1951 Coffee Company) allows refugees to have skills that are very marketable within a specific industry, and this allows them to secure jobs even sooner,” Zawil said. “It’s not going to solve the refugee crisis, but I think it helps make a change in their life.”

Hewitt said that while a coffee-based training program might seem like an odd path for refugees, virtually all aspects of the coffee industry, besides the physical growing of beans, happen in the Bay Area. This immersion offers refugees the chance to learn everything from general interpersonal skills with customers to specialized trades such as coffee roasting and management, he said.

Moreover, Hewitt said, the flexibility of being a 1951 Coffee Company barista can be helpful for new refugees who want to prioritize other things, such as school or family. Since starting the barista training programs in February, 1951 Coffee Company has trained about 30 refugees.

For Meg Karki, 1951 Coffee Company represents employment prospects for future refugees that he didn’t have himself when he first arrived in the United States as a refugee from Nepal in 2011. Despite doing many job interviews, he said, it took him eight months before he found employment.

“You need a resume — that is what 1951 is,” said Karki, who has since taught IRC skill classes and trained with 1951 Coffee Company. “Nobody’s going to hire you if you don’t have experience, and so if you do some training, they’ll think, ‘Oh this guy might be good because he has training, and we don’t have to train him a lot.’ ”

Located at 2410 Channing Way, 1951 Coffee Company is aiming to open its cafe in October, and both Karki and Rawoas look forward to speaking candidly with customers about past experiences as refugees.

“I’ll still be proud to be a United States citizen, but I will not forget those days,” Karki said. “Probably that will help somebody make up their mind and bring (about) some new ideas.”

Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks is the city news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ayoonhendricks.