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In the kitchen at Mazí Mas.
In the kitchen at Mazí Mas.
Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images

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Refugees Discover New Opportunities in the Food Industry

From London to New York, how some groups welcome displaced emigrants into the workforce

Look inside any kitchen in the United States and you're likely to see a number of people who didn't grow up speaking English: According to the Restaurant Opportunities Center, the restaurant industry is the second largest employer of immigrants in the United States.


Mr. Moran (first name withheld at his request) came to the United States with his parents when he was 11. Though some people wind up working as cooks because they need a job, for Moran, it was a passion. His uncle, a chef in their home country of Mexico, taught him how to cook. After high school graduation, Moran got his first job in a restaurant. By this point, he'd been in the United States almost as long as he had lived in Mexico. As of today, he's worked in Los Angeles restaurants from Japanese to European-influenced fine dining. Yet he says that every time he applied for a new job, managers asked about documentation. "It's not about skills, it's because you're not from this country."

"Employers don't want to pay you more," he says. "They just want you to stay in one position, like a dishwasher or prep guy. Even though you have the potential, they just want you to stay there." Language skills are another large barrier to success. "Most of my coworkers that really want to succeed give an extra effort to go to school and learn the language," Moran says. "I've seen a lot of people doing it and in two years they move on to a new position."

Some organizations are working to make the food industry a more hospitable place for immigrants again —€”€” especially for refugees.

A survey conducted by the Food Chain Workers Alliance reported that 81 percent of workers have never received a promotion. Discrimination, difficulty becoming fluent in English (the percentage of immigrants who speak only English at home declined from 30 percent in 1980 to 16 percent by 2013), and a lack of employer training make it unlikely that workers will move up from their initial positions.

The recent Syrian refugee crisis has made the politics surrounding immigration even more volatile. While some purport to worry that refugees will become a drain on society, others seem to believe that an immigrant — especially one from a very different culture — can never truly assimilate. In 2015, Germany added over one million refugees to a country of 80 million. Recently, the country's Prime Minister announced that refugees who didn't learn German, didn't accept job offers, and didn't "integrate" would lose their residency.

Refugees, who ostensibly leave their homes out of necessity rather than a desire to emigrate, find themselves in a particularly difficult situation. They have to succeed in their new country; there's no plan B. Difficult and low-paying "entry level" jobs in food and agriculture industries often make success an impossible dream. But today, there are a number of organizations and businesses working to make the food industry a more hospitable place for immigrants again —€” especially for refugees.

Mazí Mas, in London. Photo: Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images

Nikandre Kopcke wanted to focus on giving immigrant and refugee women in London a chance. She was inspired by her Greek godmother, who had only a primary school education, didn't speak much English, but always wanted to open a bakery. But the woman's husband felt that a woman's job was to stay home, cook for the family, and clean the house. "That is her greatest regret in life," Kopcke says. "I wanted to do something that would allow women to achieve those dreams."

So she started Mazí Mas to help women like Kopcke's godmother find paying work —€” not just volunteer opportunities —€” in the kitchen. Like many metropolitan areas, London was experiencing a food renaissance in the early 2010s, and people wanted meals that weren't just delicious but new. "These women had the skill, the demand existed, yet the professional culinary industry looked — and looks — very male and very white," Kopcke says.

"These women had the skill, the demand existed, yet the professional culinary industry looked very male and very white."

In the past, many immigrants have found great success in the food industry. During the California Gold Rush, Chinese immigrants opened restaurants catering to the influx of male fortune-seekers,€” few of whom could cook for themselves. Jewish delis in New York City likewise became institutions by appealing to Jews and gentiles alike. The American culinary landscape was shaped by Greek diners and, more recently, Egyptian halal carts. But as food cart licenses become harder to come by and the price of brick and mortar storefronts makes opening a restaurant just another pipe dream, opportunities are few and far between.

Today Mazí Mas, which started as a pop-up restaurant, has a permanent space in East London. Over the past three years, it's worked with 15 different women from almost as many countries. At first, Kopcke recruited women from community kitchens where they were volunteering. Outreach has widened since then. Fellow employees may come from different countries, but have commonalities as foreigners, women, and often mothers. There could have been more, but according to Kopcke, it's hard to get her employees to move on.

"I've never conceived as Mazí Mas as a terminal employer," Kopcke explains. Though she'd like to move Mazí Mas in the direction of a one-year training program, not every employee has an equal level of confidence, culinary skills, or language ability to follow that timeframe. "We've had women go on to other things and still come back," says Kopcke. Unlike many restaurants, Mazí Mas offers an all-women environment and pays a living wage. "The moment you speak accented English, you're going to be paid less than other people," Kopcke says. "Employers don't have an interest in advancing you and paying you more if they think they can keep you in a lower position."

Eat Offbeat. Photos: Facebook

But changing the entire restaurant industry —€” much less the stigma against both immigrants and a stainless steel ceiling for women in professional kitchens — is a tall order.

Some companies, like the New York City-based Eat Offbeat, have found that employing refugees can be a smart business model. In this case, it all started with hummus: Co-founder and CEO Manal Kahi discovered that the supermarket hummus she bought in the US was not nearly as good as what she had grown up with in Lebanon. She and her brother realized that while Syrian refugees in the US might not speak the language yet, they could also "make excellent hummus the way they made it at home." And this dish was just one of many that was better when made by hand.

Today, Eat Offbeat has six chefs from Iraq, Syria, Eritrea, and Nepal. Early on, it partnered with the International Rescue Committee, a major resettlement agency, to identify and recruit employees. "It's a win-win-win," Kahi says. "We get excellent chefs, refugees get a job, and the IRC gets help finding them jobs."

"It’s a win-win-win. We get excellent chefs, refugees get a job, and the International Rescue Committee gets help finding them jobs."

Unlike Mazí Mas, Eat Offbeat doesn't consider itself a job training program. "We do train them, but it's because we want to keep them," Kahi says. Yet they've found that training is about more than just on-the-job skills. One employee tried to back out of work before the first day because she had never used the subway before. Kahi went to the employee's house and commuted with her once or twice "until she learned how to use the subway." It's a small price to pay for the benefits Kahi's business and the employees receive. "Having a first job in a different culture where you don't speak the language and don't have any connections is 10 times more difficult," Kahi says. "We're trying to find ways to help them through these challenges."

This is where the sticky subject of integration comes in.

Becoming acclimated to the quirks and social norms of a new society —€” the fairest definition of integration —€” is a good thing for foreign residents. Yet Mazí Mas's founder thinks that it's "wrongheaded" to focus too much on this issue. "They will integrate if they have jobs," Kopcke says. To participate in public life, refugees and immigrants need a place outside of their home and outside of their community to go and interact with other people. "It's crazy that it's always thrust on immigrants," she says. "Where are the opportunities for them?"

Prep work at Mazí Mas. Photo: Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images

It's hard enough to start over with a new country, language, new culture, but when the only jobs available are the lowest-paying, it doesn't leave much room for success. German culinary training program Refugee Canteen wants to change that when it brings in its first class in October 2016. "People with foreign backgrounds often work in kitchens," co-founder Lukas Halfmann says. "But they commonly end up as dishwashers." He sees a lot of unused potential. Meanwhile, Germany is facing a "skills shortage in every sector of gastronomy." With culinary training encompassing basic commercial kitchen skills, vocabulary, and an internship, Halfmann hopes to benefit German restaurants and the influx of refugees alike.

In Western New York, the Cornell Refugee Milker Training program has a similar mission —€” but its focus is on dairy. It's a big industry in the region, and many dairies rely on immigrant workers to stay afloat. During the yogurt boom a few years ago, farmers wanted to expand their operations and found there weren't enough employees to make it happen. Meanwhile, resettlement agencies were discovering that many refugees who worked in agriculture in their native countries wanted to continue in the field in the United States.

"It’s not just training workers; it’s helping families get a new start in a new community."

Joan Sinclair Petzen, the agriculture department program leader, says there was more to creating the training program than just filing some jobs. They wanted to target families who would move near their place of employment —€” so they engaged with local schools to make sure they had facilities to accept these new students. ESL instructors were brought on so new employees would have a chance at the language skills they'd need to move up into more coveted assistant herd manager positions, which required communicating with veterinarians, nutritionists, and other farm consultants. It also helped that a local employer was having trouble filling positions for sewing machine operators and was able to hire spouses of people in the milker training program. As a result, families were able to have two incomes rather than relying on one.

The program has even added entrepreneurial training to allow families to sell vegetables or poultry and create a second source of income. "Things happen in life," Petzen says. Multiple sources of income are always better than one.

Petzen says that it took the entire community to make the program a success. "Early in the program, we engaged with community action groups." They taught people how to drive, get children into schools, and even consulted on issues like how to break a lease or find a new home. According to Petzen, "It's not just training workers; it's helping families get a new start in a new community."

Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist and former New Yorker who now lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @TKDano.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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