At 1951 Coffee, refugees gain job skills and
employment as their stories are brought into view
Story and photo by A.K. Carroll
What would it feel like to be separated from your country, culture, and the only home you’ve ever known? Grab a cup of Algorithm cold brew or Verve espresso at 2410 Channing Way, Berkeley, the home of 1951 Coffee Company, and begin your own journey toward understanding the refugee experience.
Just opened in January, 1951 Coffee is a center for caffeine, community, and cultural awareness. Engagement begins as you pass through the door: Colorful lines that run at angles along the floor lead you up to the counter. Evoking public transport routes that bring many refugees to relocation sites, the lines bleed onto the back wall and guide you to a corner where icons and statistics describe the long and circuitous journey a typical refugee follows toward resettlement—a process that can take up to 17 years. A corkboard map of the world shows the homeland of each 1951 Coffee barista and ties a hypothetical story to an actual person who just made your coffee.
1951 Coffee Company is the creation of Doug Hewitt and Rachel Taber, former employees of the International Rescue Committee—a humanitarian organization that responds to worldwide crises. They christened their project in recognition of the 1951 convention of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, where the term “refugee” was first defined and plans for refugee protection were put into place. A space for advocacy and education, 1951 Coffee operates with a three-fold mission: to provide refugees with practical skills and potential employment through barista training programs, to employ refugees who serve quality coffee drinks, and to tell the refugee story using the vehicle of the café itself.
As of January, the company has held six trainings for nearly 30 refugees from countries including Tunisia, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Uganda, Iran, Syria, Russia, Vietnam, Burma, and Guatemala. Prior to arriving in Oakland, participants in these two-week trainings were bankers, bakers, fashion designers, actors, teachers, bartenders, and farmers. But it has not been easy to reestablish those careers in a new country, and most of these hopeful baristas were unemployed when they started the training. Skander, from Tunisia, looks forward to someday holding a position as a barista. Ali, from Afghanistan, spent four years in a refugee camp in Indonesia before making it to Oakland. “It takes a long time,” says Ali. His co-trainees nod in agreement.
Kul came to the training with his 27-year-old son, Meg, who was born in Bhutan but hardly remembers it. Meg is among a generation of Bhutanese refugees who grew up in one of seven camps in Nepal. He says there are things he misses about the community of the camp, but his five years in Oakland haven’t been too difficult, at least not by comparison. Public transportation works well, and there are classes to help with English and citizenship. But life is getting expensive.
“When I came here I was hunting for a job for eight months,” says Meg. “I didn’t have any experience and no one wanted to hire me. They’d say, ‘I’ll call you’ and no one called…. In the future, the thing I’d like [most] is to open a food business, like a café or grocery. [I would like to gain] more knowledge about business and management and help other refugees.”
Some of the participants in these trainings will eventually work at 1951’s café, serving coffee and sharing their stories with customers, which is a way to bridge the experiences of average Bay Area residents with those of refugees. Others will go on to work at other coffee shops or in comparable customer service roles.
“The staff we bring in are people who are aware of what’s happening in the space in terms of advocacy,” says Hewitt. “And they’re OK participating in that.”
Program graduates have gone on to work at places like Blue Bottle Coffee Co., the Dropbox Cafeteria, and Due Torri Coffee Co. 1951’s growing relationships with local businesses (coffee-related or otherwise) promise more economic opportunity for trainees. “One of our hopes is that as people learn more about us, they’ll be inspired to hire with some intention and contact us to inquire if we have anyone looking for a job,” says Taber.
Design of the café was done by Montaag, an eclectic studio based in Norway. “We attract people’s attention using an array of colors and exploit the process [of getting coffee] by uploading it with narrative,” says Per Selvaag, principal at Montaag. Selvaag makes a valid point. It’s all but impossible to grab a cuppa and go without absorbing the story that’s being told all around you. “Whether you like it or not, you immerse yourself in the story.” Selvaag says that Montaag dictated a nominal fee for their services, but essentially worked for free.
Support From Within the Industry
A nonprofit and social enterprise, 1951 Coffee launched its first crowdfunding campaign, Raising the Bar for Refugees, through CrowdRise in August 2016 with an overall goal of $50K. They hit $18K in their first month and are still inching their way forward.
Among those offering support from within the coffee industry is entrepreneur Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni American who grew up in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. The founder of Port of Mokha Coffee, which seeks to empower native Yemeni coffee growers, Alkhanshali gave a presentation to 1951’s program participants in August.
“When I heard about 1951 Coffee … I knew something amazing was brewing,” Alkhanshali posted on his Facebook page. “Being from a family who left Yemen in the ‘80s to escape war and then again escaping from Yemen [myself] 17 months ago, I found so much to relate to them with. … This … was the first time I spoke to a group of people whom I felt truly understood what it feels like to live through war. … It’s days like this that remind me why I’m doing this work.”
Equal Part Cafe and Narrative Space
Though their mission is much larger, as a business (albeit a nonprofit), 1951 is primarily a coffee shop. “We want to serve very high quality coffee in the café,” says Hewitt, who made the painstaking decision on whose brew to serve. “In the end Verve was the best match for us.” The café also serves a variety of pastries.
It may seem awkward or uncomfortable for a customer at 1951 to carry on a conversation with someone whose life is depicted on the wall just behind them, but Hewitt, Taber, and Selvaag are on a mission to help bridge the gap.
“Even among very educated people, it’s a funny thing about meeting a human that’s been through what you see in a newspaper,” says Selvaag. “We’re taking advantage of the fact that you may never have known a refugee [before], but today in this space you know the eyes looking at you left their home in order to find a better life in America and now you’ve connected—Kapow! Now you’re compelled to understand the space around you.”
Understanding could be the one-word mission of 1951, a business that was being dreamt up and sketched out long before the current refugee crisis hit the public sphere. Then again, no good business venture serves as merely a cultural classroom.
“Our intention for this coffee shop is advocacy, of course, and education, but also to be the best dang coffee shop this side of Cal,” says Taber.
Originally from the cornfields of Nebraska, journalist Amanda Kuehn Carroll has spent most of her life wandering and wondering, often getting lost in the process. Her work has appeared in Diablo, 7×7, San Francisco, Napa Sonoma, SF Weekly, and online with Berkeleyside and Food Network. You can find links to her stories at akakuehn.wix.com/clips and reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.