1951 Coffee Company holds benefit event for refugee training program

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Two years ago, Ali Fayazi had never had a cup of coffee. Now, as cafe manager for 1951 Coffee Company, he has at least one cup a day.

At the David Brower Center on Friday night, Fayazi explained to an audience of more than 100 people how he had come to the United States two years ago as a refugee from Afghanistan looking for a job. A case worker put him in touch with 1951 Coffee Company’s barista training program for refugees — the program attendees were helping raise money for 1951 Coffee Company’s annual Stand with Refugees benefit event.

The benefit event’s goal was to raise $5,000 for the coffee company’s training program, which costs $150,000 to run.

“It’s not cheap to put someone through it,” 1951 Coffee Company co-founder Rachel Taber said of the training program. “(We place a) low number of people to a high number of trainers.”

According to 1951 Coffee co-founder Doug Hewitt, the program provides free, two-week training, during which refugees learn how to brew coffee, use an espresso machine and make the basic beverages seen at any specialty cafe.

The program also helps refugees find jobs by aiding in the application process, and it serves more than 100 refugees per year in the Bay Area and San Diego, Hewitt added.

“(The 1951 Coffee Company) baristas are all refugees, so we feel all the same together,” Fayazi said. “We were like a family.”

Taber and Hewitt both previously worked at the International Rescue Committee, a resettlement agency in Oakland, where Taber said they “both had very intimate experiences with amazing refugees who couldn’t find good jobs upon arrival.”

The co-founders’ response was a market-based solution: 1951 Coffee Company, a coffee organization that provides refugees with barista training as well as a cafe on Channing Way that solely employs refugees. It opened five days before the announcement of President Donald Trump’s travel ban restricting refugees from coming into the country.

Jason Reed Miller, operations manager at Mazarine Coffee in San Francisco who attended the benefit event Friday, said he connected with Hewitt and Taber at a coffee exposition in Atlanta a year ago. Since then, he has employed two 1951 Coffee Company training program graduates.

“(I’m) really proud to have 1951 Coffee in our community,” Miller said at the event. “(It’s) such a great example of an organization that helps people so much. It’s amazing that it’s here (and) active in our community.”

Rawaa Kasedah, owner of Old Damascus Fare  — a family-run catering business in Oakland that serves traditional Syrian food — cooked the food for the event. Kasedah, a Syrian refugee, opened Old Damascus Fare after resettling with her family to Oakland from Damascus, Syria.

“It’s wonderful, especially in this anti-immigrant climate — it’s so refreshing to find a whole island of being kind to another,” said benefit event attendee Larry Hatfield.

Inside the Hazel Wolf Gallery of the David Brower Center, a multimedia presentation displayed photos of refugees employed at the coffee shop. A video featured Meg Karki, who worked as senior barista at 1951 Coffee after previously spending 20 years at a refugee camp.

Surrounding tables displayed profiles of the different baristas who work for 1951 Coffee. Profiles included Parti, a refugee from Bhutan, who wants to own and run his own construction company; Peter from Kachin, who hopes to own a business in the Bay Area; and Liebe from Eritrea, who said he wants to open and own an Eritrean restaurant or coffee shop.

“Refugees are human beings. They have hopes, they have lives, they have dreams,” Karki said in the video. “So what is the difference between you and me? There is no difference.”

Contact Alyssa Bernardino at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @alybernardino.