Few can forget the day in June 2015 when Donald Trump kicked off his bid for president with an angry speech in which he referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists who would bring crime and drugs to America.
Sumiya Khan, who is the daughter of Indian immigrants, certainly remembers. The shock and offense she felt at Trump’s remarks led her to imagine a place “where refugees’ cuisines and stories” could be featured in a far more positive way. By April 2017 — six months after Trump was ultimately elected — she had opened Sanctuary Kitchen at CitySeed, an organization in New Haven, Connecticut, that hires immigrants and refugees to share recipes from their homelands via cooking classes and catered events.
The intimate, communal nature of sharing meals together can help change hardened people’s minds, she believes. “You’re getting to meet somebody featured in the headlines on a personal level, getting to know them,” Khan says of her work. “Food is the perfect medium for that.”
Khan’s organization is one of a growing list of kitchen-related social enterprises that aim to create economic opportunities for immigrants and refugees while simultaneously reducing bias and changing stereotypes. Many are run by women entrepreneurs, who say they were motivated to take action amid spreading anti-immigration sentiment. And in most cases, they are helping fellow women get steady jobs in an industry that has long relied on immigrant labor.
A state away, in New York City, Hot Bread Kitchen is dedicated to arming “women who face profound barriers to employment” with the skills needed to thrive in American restaurants, says its head of workforce Karen Bornarth. Manal Kahi, co-founder of catering company Eat OffBeat, is similarly building bridges between immigrant women and long-term New Yorkers. And in Brooklyn, Kerry Brodie runs restaurant Emma’s Torch with the same mission in mind.
Combined, they’ve counted hundreds of successes to date. Beatriz Rosales Lopez, who came to America from Costa Rica in 2009 seeking a way to provide for her children, is one of them. A decade after arriving here, she has found much more than a paycheck after graduating from Hot Bread Kitchen’s culinary training program.
Beatriz says she has developed a sense of pride, and a career path, through her experience. “I learn every day. I didn’t used to bake much, but now I’m a baker. My hard work, my ethic, I am so proud of myself and my job.”
Why the Pathway Matters
As of 2017, approximately 44.4 million people living in the United States were born outside of the country — just shy of 14 percent of the overall population. The majority of American immigrants come from Mexico and Latin American nations, while most refugees arrive here from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria.
It’s a diverse group, but over the past few years, xenophobia against them has risen across the board, in tandem with Trump’s charged rhetoric. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have raised concerns about the links between his words and the spike in reported hate crimes and activity in recent years.
Under Trump, the anti-immigration stance has manifested itself into policies like the so-called “Muslim ban,” family separations under a “zero tolerance” immigration rule, restricted access to public assistance programs, and more. And all of this is happening as global displacement rates are at an all-time high.
The rub is that, despite the inflammatory statements, studies have shown that welcoming immigrants and refugees into one’s community actually proves to be a boon for local economies. Unemployment rates drop and gross domestic product rises due to their contributions to the marketplace and the services they provide, research has found.
Activists see kitchen work as a gateway to such economic engagement for immigrants and refugees — women in particular — as well as a way to flip an inaccurate script. Kahi of Eat OffBeat wants to see “a different, more positive story where refugees are chefs, heroes, the ones helping [people] discover something new and different.” She adds, “In most cases, once they’re established, they’re here to contribute.”
But in addition to the structural and societal barriers facing them, immigrant and refugee women often need to rise above the sexism seen in most American workplaces, too — and in American kitchens especially. The combination makes finding entrances hard, and forging paths upward even harder.
To help remove those barriers, founders of these organizations and businesses train workers, then refer them to local employment partners, arming members of much-maligned immigrant groups with the skills they need to thrive, and a chance to effect positive economic change.
Female Founders Leading the Way
Brodie, who launched her Emma’s Torch restaurant in Brooklyn in 2015, is the descendant of Holocaust survivors. Always motivated to work on behalf of others, she started out focused on public policy while volunteering at a homeless shelter. But she recalls wondering: “Is there more we can be doing around food and equity? Is handing out a muffin sufficient?”
She began to think about what long-term nourishment might look like while also seeking ways to engage the asylum seekers she interacted with on a regular basis. Her musings came together in the form of an eatery that doubles as a classroom, whose mission is to provide “equity in the food space and access to the workforce” through job training. Initially, she wanted to work for an organization with that mission. When she didn’t find one, she launched her own.
Kahi’s journey to Eat OffBeat is different — and considerably longer, geographically speaking. She moved to the U.S. from Lebanon in 2013 to attend graduate school at Columbia University. While she came here hungry to work in international affairs, she found herself starved for good hummus, the latter of which she found to be in short supply in New York City.
Kahi reached out to her grandmother for her recipe, and began sharing her homemade hummus with friends and acquaintances. She was struck by its instant popularity — and even entertained starting a business with her brother to sell it — but instead found herself thinking about a farther reaching mission: “chefs from all over the world bringing in authentic recipes” to catering clients. She, too, launched in 2015.
[Related: From Refugee Camp to Successful Entrepreneur]
And Hot Bread Kitchen, founded in 2008, has grown beyond its bread-baking roots to “serve more women, and fill more of the food service jobs that go unfilled,” Bornarth says. Today, participants get about 100 hours of hands-on training — from knife basics to food safety procedures — as well as professional development in the form of resume building exercises, mock interviews, and more.
Women Lifting Up Women
Bornarth asserts that the immigrant and refugee women Hot Bread Kitchen employs have two shared traits: “they want to work and love to cook.” And she views it as her personal mission to create opportunities for people, women in particular, who are “very much underrepresented in leadership and management in food services.”
Kahi sees a glaring cognitive dissonance in the status quo. After all, she says, “in most cases, and most cultures, it’s usually women dominating the kitchens in every household. But at a professional level, it’s usually men in charge.”
Below the top tiers, professional kitchens in the U.S. are “very heavily driven by immigrants and refugees,” she adds, making it “an area where it’s easy for [them] to make a contribution. You’ve left your country, and brought very little material possessions with you. What you do bring are memories from your home, and recipes. That’s something that’s easy to transmit, to share with hosts or local communities.”
Bornath, Kahi and other activists want to see immigrant women rise up in the ranks. For that to happen, “we have to shake up some long-held assumptions that are very ingrained in the food service culture about what it means to be a boss,” Bornarth says.
Specifically, “we need to make space, as women, for other women,” she says. And “it’s not just enough to see a lot of women when it’s the same type: white, college-educated ones like me taking on [leadership] roles.”
Bornath’s dream? Having enough minority women in the industry to “create social capital among themselves.”
Gathering Around the Table
As a presidential election once again nears, and anti-immigrant bombast heats up, the heads of each of these organizations say they’re thriving — and each report specific plans to scale up and broaden their reach in coming years.
Rather than fear or derision, the founders say they’ve largely received support and positive press attention. For example, “the New Haven community was super excited about it — and they wanted more,” Sanctuary Kitchen’s Khan says.
Building bridges through cultural exchange remains the heart of their work. “When [people] come to an event and share a meal with a refugee from Syria, they connect on a human level — hearing their story, learning that they just want a safe place to raise their families and earn a livelihood,” Khan says.
Kahi of EatOffbeat agrees, adding that a (metaphorical) melting pot lifts everybody up. “Diversity is part of our success — bringing different points of view and ways of doing things,” she says.
And for these women entrepreneurs, those principles all come together — like any great recipe does — in the kitchen. “Food has the ability to transcend borders, linguistic and cultural divides,” Brodie of Emma’s Torch says. Food taps into “the universality of the human experience — we all eat and cook.”
“We shouldn’t be saying, ‘We don’t want to accept more people,'” she adds. “We should be valuing what they bring to the table.”
[Related: Feeding the Ambitions of Female Chefs]