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.