A Refugee Tells His Story Through Coffee – 25 Magazine: Issue 3

A Refugee Tells His Story Through Coffee – 25 Magazine: Issue 3

OOver 65 million people around the world have been forced to leave their homes. As levels of displacement reach crisis point, one coffee company in the US is helping refugees settle in their new country by equipping them with the skills needed to become successful baristas.

ELIZABETH DOERR talks to the team at 1951 Coffee Company in Issue 3 of 25 Magazine.

You may have heard of the country Bhutan. You may have heard about its lush jagged peaks due to its perch at the eastern base of the Himalayas. You may have heard that Bhutan exceeds in “Gross National Happiness,” placing quality of life over material wealth.

This is what Bhutan wants you to hear. But there are aspects of the country that the tourism board won’t necessarily advertise on its website. While all of these aspects of the country exist – the culture and the landscape are beautiful and rich, and the people economists have surveyed are, indeed, happy – there’s a darker secret that this beauty and joy masks. A mass exodus of Nepali minorities from Bhutan make up one of the largest refugee groups proportional to the country’s population. Since the early 1990s, more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalis have fled southern Bhutan (about one- sixth of the entire population) because of a concentrated governmental effort to impose a “One Nation, One Culture” policy for fear that the Buddhist-practicing Drukpa majority would be overtaken. The crackdown of protests from the oppressed minority eventually drove an entire ethnic group out of the country to Nepal where, not exactly accepted by the country from which their ancestors emigrated in the late nineteenth century, many spent the decades since in refugee camps.

Somehow with all the attention Bhutan gets for its happiness index, this history has been lost. But one person in the San Francisco Bay area of California, Meg Karki, is helping to tell this story by way of coffee.

“A place can measure happiness when those who aren’t happy are asked to leave,” Meg, Café Manager and Barista Training Program Instructor for 1951 Coffee Company, said to a crowded room as he introduced himself at the Re:co Specialty Coffee Symposium in Seattle in April 2017. With this statement, he was able to connect this room of coffee industry people to his refugee experience.

Meg, dressed sharply in crisp dark jeans, a pressed gray jacket, and bright white sneakers, told the audience that in 1991, at three, he and his family followed their friends and neighbors to Nepal where he spent the next 19 years in the Goldhap refugee camp. His home — a 200 sq. ft. structure, “the size of a soccer goal,” made with thatch and bamboo — was one of 1,400 and Meg was one of 10,000 stateless people languishing in limbo in that one camp.

“Houses were very small,” he said. “I went to school eight hours a day and we sometimes had food shortages.” Like any kid, he spent his time in the camp hanging out with his friends. They played soccer with a homemade ball of plastic, paper, and old cloth, using the trees obstructing the fields as extra defenders. He wasn’t allowed to work legally in Nepal, but he was able to finish high school.

As efforts to resettle refugees in the Nepali camps ramped up, 22-year-old Meg received the news in 2011 (after two and a half years going through the vetting process) that he’d have the chance for a new life in the US, specifically in Oakland, California where his mother had been resettled in 2010. There, Meg connected with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) where he met coffee lover and the organization’s employment coordinator at the time, Doug Hewitt. It was this connection that six years later would make Meg a face of one of the most innovative refugee advocacy organizations in the region, 1951 Coffee Company. And it was this move that provided him with a platform to share not only the darker side of Bhutan’s history, but also his personal story as a human and as a refugee.

1951 Coffee Company

Founded in 2015 by former IRC employees Doug Hewitt and Rachel Taber, 1951 Coffee Company has an ambition to transform local communities in which refugees live, by way of coffee. They do this by providing refugees with training and employment as baristas. Then through their work at the coffee counter and through pure human interaction, these refugees provide education about their life to their customers and the surrounding community. As Doug’s friend and coffee- roasting buddy, Meg became one of the first to participate in barista training and soon after became 1951’s Café Manager and a Training Program Instructor.


“One of the things that Meg did was help other people,” Doug says of why he wanted Meg involved. He didn’t just help people in his own Bhutanese community, “but all refugees as they adjust to their new environment. And that’s such a huge thing. Generally his openness to help people take the steps that he took, his openness to empower other people, and his humility are what make him perfect for this position.”

Meg believes his personal identification with being a refugee is what helps him succeed as a trainer. He says that he knows what it’s like being new to the country, not understanding American customer service culture, and being introduced to the foreign concept of specialty coffee. Many of the trainees arrive in the US mere months before they enter the program. Meg recollects his difficulty in pulling the perfect espresso shot or making aesthetically pleasing latte art when he trains other refugees.

The compassion and understanding in Meg’s eyes are clear when he works with the other baristas. He’s not too serious with them either, joking around and laughing with them as he steams milk. His dark eyes are soft with a friendly glow that exudes across his round face, making you feel like you’ve known him for years. When he provides feedback or helps a barista with a new skill, he leans in conspiratorially, sometimes lightly touching the trainee’s arm. He tells them that it’s okay that they’re having a hard time with the techniques. They’ll eventually get it, just like he did.

“I was going through the same training program and I was really bad,” he says. “Even the latte, the cappuccino … I didn’t know how to pronounce them, and now I’m teaching them. I think that’s how 1951 helps. Being in a training program and being a trainer is very good because I can tell my story.” He often tells his trainees that they are doing great and he knows because he didn’t do as well as them during his training.

It’s this refugee-teaching-refugee model that also supports 1951’s mission of providing a comfortable environment for refugees to learn about employment culture in the US.

“While working at the IRC, I continually found that there was this huge gap between what refugees needed and what companies often would provide,” Doug says. “I always thought it would be amazing if there was an employer out there, especially a café, running a business which allowed refugees to work front-of-house in front of customers, and allowed them to really interact with the American public – an employer that would understand the challenges refugees are going through in those first few months after arrival, help support them, and let them grow.”

That’s how 1951 emerged to become that understanding employer. Not only does the company have trainers who have been in the refugees’ shoes, the trainees are allowed the opportunity to practice their new skills as a barista and interact with members of their new community. 1951 allows them to do it at a slower pace, with understanding staff, and without the added stress.

“The jobs that refugees often get when they come here to the US are midnight, warehouse, packaging-and-processing, back-of-house, janitorial,” says Rachel Taber, Doug’s Co-Founder in 1951. “Jobs that leave them very segregated from their new community — linguistically, socially, and culturally. It’s natural that a barista is out in the public, that there is dignity and equality behind the bar, and across the bar with community members.”

Coffee Culture

Dignity, equality, and hospitality are intrinsic to coffee and tea culture. “You find that in almost any culture in the world when someone arrives at your home, you will be presented with one of the two, tea or coffee, or some combination of both,” says Doug. “We know here in the US, when you wake up in the morning you’re going to try to consume one of those two things and often you’re going to consume it in a café. The café is a very central part of American culture and American life. We thought, what better place for refugees to be than right in the middle of where everything is going on?”

It’s being in the meeting spot of the local community that not only helps the refugee adjust to living in their adopted country, but also helps their customers have a human connection with the refugee crisis. Just hearing that there are 22.5 million refugees worldwide does nothing to make the issue feel closer. What could bring it closer is hearing even one of those refugees’ stories. Perhaps hearing their story over a cup of coffee.

“As the industry starts caring more about origin,” says Rachel, “there’s a greater awareness of international situations of famine or war. As that appreciation grows for those countries, there’s an increased appreciation for the full circle nature of it.”

Political Landscape

The current state of politics in the US has also brought awareness of the refugee crisis to the average customer. 1951’s café opened on January 22, 2017, five days before US President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning travel to the US by people of seven majority Muslim countries. It was a serendipitous but also troubling time to open. 1951 found itself at the center of a galvanizing effort to make change.

“When people began to look for a place to show support for refugees, they found us. They came to our café, and they talked with our baristas. They sat in our space, and wrote to their elected officials,” Doug told the Re:co audience in Seattle. 1951’s space is like a contemporary museum with a wall-sized wooden map and thick, primary-colored lines connecting details about the refugee experience like a life-sized infographic. In this educational and communal space, Doug says, “people strategized around ways that they could go out of the café and make a difference in this situation, all while sitting with us drinking a coffee.”

Coffee is the element that brings those ideas of change together. But at the heart of it is bringing people together. “I like drinking coffee,” Meg says, “but the thing I enjoy most are the people from the university.” 1951’s café is right down the street from the University of California Berkeley. “The people treat us like human beings. They treat us like them, like they are welcoming us.”

The humanity behind the act of drinking coffee and understanding where the beans that make your favorite drink come from are linked to the person serving them to you. Through the third wave of coffee, farmers build relationships with roasters; roasters build relationships with cafés; cafés with their baristas; and baristas with their community. And by these means, you could walk into a coffee shop, strike up a conversation with your barista and learn about how and why he, a bright, happy, young man born in Bhutan, ended up pulling your shot of espresso in a café in Berkeley, California.

Freedom Through Coffee

Have you enjoyed Meg’s story? You can read more interviews with refugees trained by 1951 Coffee Company on scanews.coffee.

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