For Kerry Brodie, inspiration for change started with baked goods.
“Two years ago, I was working at the Human Rights Campaign [in Washington, D.C] while volunteering at a local homeless shelter,” the 27 year-old entrepreneur says. “One day, while I was handing out muffins, I had this crazy idea that we could find a way to further social justice goals through food. After all, sharing meals and cooking is one of the most universal human experiences.”
Soon, Brodie founded Emma’s Torch, a program in New York that provides free culinary training to refugees and asylum seekers, helping them take a big step to resettlement in the U.S. (The organization’s name is inspired by Emma Lazarus, the 19th century poet and activist who penned the famous poem on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …”)
While enrolled, the students — placed in the program thanks to partnerships with refugee assistant agencies such as Church World World Service, Sanctuary for Families and International Rescue Committee — learn cooking basics over a two-month period of time before they are officially licensed for food handling in professional kitchens. Among the dishes they learn to serve in the pop-up restaurant adjacent to the class are avocado toast, a North African egg and tomato-based dish called shakshuka and banana tahini muffins — delicacies inspired by the diverse backgrounds of the attendees, who come from Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Ivory Coast and other countries throughout Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
There is also a course where students can learn the lingo of chefs while improving their English language skills, and they are paid a wage above market value during training ($15 per hour, which is about three dollars more than the typical wage for a line cook in NYC, according to Payscale).
Such job prep is essential for those who go through the Emma’s Torch experience. Refugees that make it into the States after going through a rigorous immigration process can get some federal aid for a few months, but often they are left with few options once that assistance runs dry. The Center for Immigration Studies reported that in the period between 2009 and 2011, refugee incomes “remained substantially below those of the U.S.-born” even after more than 10 years in the United States, and they are more likely to be at the poverty level.
Before it can address those big issues, though, Emma’s Torch is starting small. Only a few students were enrolled in 2017 after the program’s June launch, but many graduates have already gotten restaurant jobs — and the hope is to scale operations quickly. Brodie tells Giving Compass she plans to expand the class to a larger location in Brooklyn in 2018 with help from a $25,000 grant earned from the Starbucks Upstanders Challenge, all while staying true to the organization’s original mission.
“What is essential to our identity is our ability to welcome in the stranger,” she says. “That is what makes America great.”
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