Bridging Communities, One Latte at a Time

A nonprofit trains refugees to become baristas in the coffee-obsessed Bay Area.


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Doug Hewitt and Rachel Taber

Photo by Stephen Texeira

When Peter Krang arrived to the United States two years ago from Malaysia, he and his wife had difficulty finding decent-paying jobs despite their work experiences—his wife had worked in hospitals, and Krang, as a bartender. After settling in Oakland, the couple—refugees originally from Burma—started a small family. Krang is a runner at Oakland’s Portal restaurant near Lake Merritt and is seeking a second job, while his wife is studying for her nursing license.

When the opportunity came up to be a part of a free barista training program, Krang immediately jumped at the chance. “I’d love to learn about that,” Krang recalled thinking.

The 1951 Coffee Company is a year-old nonprofit that provides free job training for refugees. The two founders, Doug Hewitt and Rachel Taber, are former employees of the International Rescue Committee in Oakland, which helps to resettle recently arrived refugees. 1951 is a reference to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a United Nations treaty that set rules to protect refugees around the world.

One of 1951 Coffee Company’s goals is to be the bridge between refugees and U.S. employers. Many refugees arrive with no paperwork and resumes, and U.S. employers don’t have a way of contacting their previous employers in their home countries or in refugee camps. “Some employers just won’t take a chance on someone without a reference in the U.S.,” Hewitt said. Others have skills, like Krang’s wife, but must be recertified in the U.S. And many have very limited English skills.

Taber and Hewitt both thought that coffee was a good field for refugees. “Baristas in the Bay Area make $13, plus $4 to $5 on tips, per hour,” Taber said. Trainees can work in cafes as baristas and in many local coffee companies and restaurants.

So far, 19 people—representing eight countries, including Guatemala, Somalia, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Burma—have graduated from the two-week program. The training kitchen is at Regeneration Church in Eastlake, near where many of the Bay Area’s refugees reside. Nearly all of the participants have been Oakland residents. During the program, the organization brings in mock customers to give students a chance to serve coffee to the public.

Having seen the intense struggles facing new refugees—from housing to health care and jobs, language, and education—Hewitt and Taber also hope to share the refugees’ stories with the public. “There’s a need to bring in the larger community,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt himself had an eye-opening moment when he was a graduate student working at a Starbucks nearly a decade ago. One of his co-workers was a refugee from Eritrea. One day, he sat down with this co-worker and learned more about his life. “My eyes were opened to a new population in the Bay Area that I didn’t know a whole lot about,” Hewitt said. Today, they’re still good friends.

What better way than to connect the larger public and newer communities than over a hot cup of coffee? Their plan is to open 1951 Coffee Shop, a cafe close to the UC Berkeley campus, in late summer. It will be on the bottom floor of the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, where they’re renting a space. They’ll serve coffee from Verve Coffee Roasters in Santa Cruz. Along the walls and throughout the cafe, there will be photos and stories about refugees’ lives.

During the first week of training, Krang focused on making regular coffee and becoming acquainted with all the equipment and terminology. The second week, the group of trainees turned their attention to making specialty espresso drinks like lattes and cappuccinos.

In mid-May, Krang completed his training through 1951 Coffee Company. He’s hoping that one day soon, he’ll get a second job in the coffee industry. His favorite drink to make? Lattes.

Published online on Sept. 15, 2016 at 9:00 a.m.

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