Welcome Here: Bay Area Refugees Find Community Through Food
Pa Wah, a refugee from Karen State in Burma, serves up Ngya Bah Toh, a sticky rice dish with banana tree flower, at a recent Oakland Bloom Night Market. (Rich Lomibao(

Welcome Here: Bay Area Refugees Find Community Through Food


One of the earliest memories for Sahar*, an Iranian refugee living in Oakland, was receiving a special gift on her third birthday: a toddler-size apron made just for her. In her family's kitchen, she prided herself on being her mother's helper—washing herbs, cleaning beans, and assisting in making household staples, such as tomato paste, in bulk to store for months to come.

"I remember that perfectly," says Sahar. "There was always a lot happening in the kitchen, and the whole family would come together to get things done. Every season there was something you were doing to preserve or make in the house."

About 30 years later, on the back patio of her home in Glen View, Sahar recalled her childhood back in Iran, much of which she spent just a block from the Caspian Sea. Being situated on the coast meant a constant supply of incredible fish and other seafood—caviar was a speciality there —and the local villagers provided an abundance of fresh eggs, vegetables, and rice, as well as milk from the "dairy ladies" who went house to house selling it fresh from their cows.

One of Sahar's home-cooked Iranian meals: Fesenjoon, a pomegranate walnut and chicken stew, along with saffron rice with tahdig (crispy rice taken from the bottom of the pot it's cooked in), yogurt dip with cucumber, and saffron rice pudding.

Sahar has now been in the United States for nearly 20 years (and in the Bay Area for around five), and cooking Iranian food has always been a way for her to ground herself, stay close to her culture, and bring people together. She has worked in the mental health field for many years and never thought it was a possibility to make her love of cooking her profession—until just recently, when she heard about Oakland Bloom.

Founded in 2015 by Seanathan Chow, Oakland Bloom is a nonprofit that helps refugees in the Bay Area become food entrepreneurs and start their own small businesses. The 12-week program covers everything from marketing to budgeting to recipe testing, culminating with a Night Market Pop-Up, when graduating chefs have the chance to serve their food to the community.

"The baseline for our program is always just a love of cooking; there's no need for experience in owning a business or cooking professionally," says Chow, a social entrepreneur who has previously cooked at restaurants including Nopalito and Hawker Fare (run by chef-owner James Syhabout, himself a Laotian refugee and also the owner of Oakland's Michelin star-rated Commis).

One of the first tasks in the program, Chow says, is to hand out notebooks and ask participants to write down their recipes, which often only exist in their memories and have never been put to paper. Throughout the program, the refugee chefs develop and test their recipes and get feedback from the group. They're encouraged not to change their food to cater to Western tastebuds, and are instead advised to be true to their story and their native foods and methods.

In the past, classes and the Night Markets have been held at the Clarion Hotel in downtown Oakland, but starting this Sunday, the program will be moving to Three Amigos Market, a deli in East Oakland. Chow is excited about the new space and wants to use it to start a restaurant concept there in the coming weeks to help support students with employment and business development. He may expand this idea to other restaurant spaces in the future.

Another big goal for Chow is finding a permanent location for the Night Market concept, operating similar to the hawker centers you find in Asia that feature a range of food stalls. This would give the chefs a place to get their businesses up and running and work out the kinks. And it would give Oaklanders a way to directly support refugees while getting delicious, home-cooked food.

The Night Markets are often the first time these chefs have cooked for a large group in a commercial kitchen. At the last market in May, Sahar said she was blown away to see the turnout and so many people enjoying the food. She cooked one of her favorite Iranian dishes: kuku sabzi, an Iranian frittata made with eggs, fresh herbs, and leafy greens sourced from local farmers. She earned rave reviews.

"Right before the event, we do a lineup and have everyone try each dish and make any last minute adjustments. As eaters begin to line up outside, students know what's about to happen. It's an exciting moment."

The Bay Area has long been home to diverse groups of immigrants from around the world. Alameda County is the fourth most diverse county in the nation, with 34 percent of people being foreign born, according to U.S. Census data. California has also traditionally been welcoming to refugees—the East Bay Refugee Forum estimates that the Bay Area welcomes about 1,000-1,200 on average each year, with nearly 800 resettling here since October 2016.

Today, at a time when refugees have become a dividing line in politics and President Trump has repeatedly called for a ban to prevent many of them from entering the country, California continues to be a haven for those seeking to resettle in the United States. The Bay Area's accepting environment and the area's diverse demographics can make it a solid place for refugees to live.

But the Bay Area doesn't come without its challenges. For many, the biggest concern is cost of living. Once a refugee arrives in the U.S., they typically only receive a small amount of financial assistance before being left to figure out an income on their own. For that reason, most organizations are focused on helping refugees find jobs quickly.

That's the goal of 1951 Coffee Company, a nonprofit specialty coffee organization that provides both job training and placement to refugees and asylum seekers in the speciality coffee industry. In January, cofounders Doug Hewitt and Rachel Taber opened the program's first cafe, 1951 Coffee in Berkeley, employing graduates of the refugee barista training program.

The cafe was open less than a week before President Trump's failed travel ban was proposed, and the Berkeley community rallied around the shop. It has given people an immediate way to make an impact with so much hate being spread in politics, Hewitt says.

"For the refugees we employ, many had family members or friends directly affected by the ban, and despite all being from completely different cultural backgrounds, religions, and often languages, there was a sense of camaraderie and shared compassion," Hewitt says. "They can relate to each other's experience and support each other."

The shop currently employs baristas from six countries, including Afghanistan, Burma, Iran, and Syria. To date, the training program has seen 26 graduates who have gone on to secure jobs at companies including Blue Bottle, Due Torri, and Mazarine Coffee, among others.

Hewitt says the hope is that the program connects participants to one particular industry—in this case, speciality coffee—that allows them to move up and have forward-facing positions in which they interact with customers, rather than back-of-house positions typically given to refugees and immigrants.

Many refugees must secure jobs to help make ends meet and can stick to them for years rather than pursuing other goals. Although there are organizations that focus on helping newly arrived refugees find jobs, Chow believes that's not enough—that's one of the reasons he founded Oakland Bloom: to help the refugees take their journey one step further by becoming owners and entrepreneurs.

"For someone who hasn't had a lot of control in many aspects of their lives, giving them some sense of control over where they're heading is really powerful. Refugees and immigrants are amazing cooks, with authentic food to share from their countries. For them to make a living by cooking what's meaningful to them is incredibly empowering."

Chow says he's still testing out various formats for Oakland Bloom but made it clear that once a participant "graduates," it's not goodbye—he will stick with them and coach them as they take steps to open their own business. Many have already started, launching businesses that span from catering to sales.

For Sahar, she hopes to open a stand at the Jack London Square Farmers Market. She loves the idea of serving up her authentic Iranian food to the community in this way.

"With my food, I go back to what was on the table in my childhood," she says. "My home was always busy with family and visitors. For me, cooking and food are all about community building and sharing my culture."

*Sahar asked that her last name to be withheld in this story due to security concerns stemming from her history in Iran.

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