1951 Coffee Company graduates speak on giving opportunities to refugees

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Sunny Shen/Senior Staff
In an event hosted by 1951 Coffee Company, panelists talked about the struggles refugees face when entering the United States and how working through the company's barista program helped change the refugees' lives.

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Coffee can be more than just a drink; for some, it opens up a field of opportunities, as discussed by former refugees in an event hosted by 1951 Coffee Company Thursday.

First opening its doors to Berkeley in 2015, 1951 Coffee Company is a nonprofit organization that trains and hires refugees, asylees and special immigrant visa holders while educating the community about their struggles, according to the company’s website. The virtual event, “Opening Doors: Refugees’ Stories of Inclusivity in the Coffee Industry,” focused on the stories of graduates from the company’s training program and cafe managers about their experiences working in the coffee sector.

“The U.S. government says the goal for resettling refugees is for them to be 100% economically self-sufficient within six months, so finding a job is extremely crucial to them being able to get started,” said company co-founder Doug Hewitt during the event. “It doesn’t matter what their educational background is or what level of English they have. They’re all expected to be economically self-sufficient within the first six months.”

The event began with a screening of A Single Origin, 1951 Coffee Company’s documentary, which focused on the company’s beginnings. After the screening, panelists talked about the struggles refugees can face when entering the United States and how working as baristas helped change the refugees’ lives.

Jason Miller, manager of Blue Bottle Coffee’s San Francisco location, said he worked with 1951 Coffee Company graduates and saw an “earnest desire” in them to contribute to their communities.

“It was just really amazing to kind of watch them grow so quickly and adapt so quickly, and become really successful,” Miller said during the event.

Doris Garrido, a program graduate who now works as a barista at The Crown in Oakland, said she wants to learn about the myriad of aspects of coffee production such as fermentation, producers and origins, now that she has moved from the wine industry to coffee.

During the event, Anton Lents, a program graduate who now works at Saint Frank Coffee in San Francisco, said immigrants face the stereotype that they are lazy upon coming to the United States. He added that businesses such as 1951 Coffee Company are important in giving opportunities to immigrants.

According to Lents, his life has changed because of the company. Lents said a small “push” can help a lot, as he initially worked as a gardener and struggled to pay for expenses, but decided to undergo training from the company after a friend shared the idea with him.

“My life changed dramatically, and I must tell you that despite all the odds this year, I’ve never been happier in my entire life,” Lents said. “I can’t imagine this change to happen without this program.”

Contact Natalie Lu at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @natalie_c_lu.