A Refugee-Run Café In New Jersey Where Good Food And Good Deeds Give Hope 

Story by Stacy Basko
Photos By David Berkwitz

One by one, *Yvonne drains the potatoes she’s simmered before gently rolling them into a pot of bubbling oil. They need to sit and fry for a minute, so she turns to check on the rest of her food. She’s in a church in central New Jersey, prepping the stewed dishes her mother taught her to make as a child in Africa. It’s Thursday, Yvonne’s day to run the kitchen at Global Grace Café, and Congolese food is what’s for lunch.

Opened in April 2016, the café is part of the Reformed Church of Highland Park and run by refugees and asylees resettled by the church. Prices are low at $5 for an entrée, and with 100 customers a day, the restaurant just breaks even. Refugee cooks earn wages while volunteers work front-of-house, transforming the social hall into a dining room. Each day the menu changes, bringing food from Syria, India, Jamaica, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to a place the refugee chefs are learning to call home.

Behind the stove, *Zbeda, a Syrian who arrived in January after waiting for four years in a Jordanian refugee camp, keeps an eye on Yvonne’s potatoes. They cook together often, but English is the only language the women share and it is new to both of them. Without saying a word, Zbeda picks up Yvonne’s spoon and begins nudging the potatoes toward a crispy golden brown. It’s Ramadan, so she’s fasting until sundown. She’ll cook again at home, this time making chicken, rice and fatoosh salad for iftar, the meal she’ll share with her husband and children to break the day’s fast.

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Potatoes fry in oil in the kitchen of the Global Grace Café. Photo by David Berkwitz.

The force behind church efforts to fold refugees into the larger community is the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, who leads Interfaith-Refugee Immigrant Services and Empowerment (I-RISE), a non-profit agency he formed last year. With many years spent as a community organizer and social justice activist, Kaper-Dale also stands as New Jersey’s Green Party candidate for governor. His platform, “The last are first,” is a biblical reference and guiding principle that he describes as his “mantra in life.”

Kaper-Dale built I-RISE, a coalition of 55 faith-based organizations, with funds raised during a walk-a-thon at the end of 2015. Creating the agency pushed immigrant services to a new level, enabling them to meet U.S. State Department criteria to become an official resettlement site. They run on a lean staff supported by hundreds of volunteers and are approved to receive 50 people this year. “Fifty is not a big number,” Kaper-Dale said, predicting a total of 13 to 14 families, “but it doesn’t feel small.”

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The force behind church efforts to fold refugees into the larger community is the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale. Photo by David Berkwitz.

Refugees and asylees reach the church under different circumstances. A few enter as individuals, but most bring spouses and children, usually after having spent years in detention centers in countries where they were unable to assimilate. After long, arduous journeys, they arrive in New Jersey with varying needs. Some have mental health issues caused by experiencing persecution or living in a war zone. Others come with medical issues that haven’t been properly treated. Every single one of them fled familiarity looking for a safe place to survive.

While some have little formal education, others arrive with master’s degrees and former lives as professionals. “They’re dealing with waning status and becoming a nobody in their world,” Kaper-Dale said. He spoke of an Afghani man who lost friends in Kabul on May 31 when a truck bomb blasted the office where he used to work. “War goes after everybody.”

Blurring lines between age, ethnicity and faith, volunteers from different backgrounds work together toward a common cause. “There’s a beautiful, intentional, compassionate community that revolves around Highland Park,” Kaper-Dale said. A Syrian refugee might start her week at an English class taught by a Christian, followed by mid-week help from a Jewish tutor and a Friday trip to the mosque with fellow Muslims. “Our refugees are more exposed to the beauty of our diversity than people who’ve been here a long time,” Kaper-Dale said. “That’s got to be a good thing.”

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The day’s Congolese meal is almost ready to be served. Photo by David Berkwitz.

Kaper-Dale credits his parents, both public servants, for his principles. He traces his commitment to action back to a fifth-grade fistfight where he defended a classmate who was bullied for being overweight. “I can still remember the injustice of somebody being treated poorly by others,” he said. This desire to lift the most vulnerable people in society drives his political aspirations. “I want to step into the policy tide for a while and ask why we have the world that we have,” he said. “I want to put the ‘last are first’ lens over every decision I make.”

When families arrive, I-RISE hustles to have a home ready before they meet at the airport. Affordable housing is always a challenge in New Jersey, so this sometimes happens with help from a landlord willing to rent at a discount. They also make sure a culturally–sensitive meal waits for the family as they walk through the door for the first time. “It’s a day of lavish grace,” Kaper-Dale said. Then, the hard work of the first 90 days of resettlement begins.

As required by the State Department, cultural orientation and English classes begin right away and everyone applies for public assistance. Once they have Social Security cards, adults look for work and register their children for school. Entering a school system means appointments with doctors, teachers and social workers for evaluations and vaccines. Inoculations can’t be administered all at once, so this takes time. Language barriers and difficulty understanding forms lengthen the process, but small good deeds give hope. Someone recently needed a drug not covered by her medical plan, so a local pharmacist slipped it in the bag free of charge.

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English is the only language the cooks share and it is new to them. Photo by David Berkwitz.

Transportation is a large part of these endeavors. While most refugees eventually get their driver’s licenses, it usually doesn’t happen right away and they don’t always have access to a car. To bridge the gap, a pool of 500 volunteers stands ready with rides to and from stores, places of worship, the endless appointments. It’s an extensive effort, with 110 volunteers recently assigned to support just one family.

Logistics aside, Kaper-Dale said finding meaningful work is the biggest challenge. Refugees are required to start searching right away – and they want to – but they must also start learning English at the same time. The two goals compete for time and attention, requiring careful balance. Weak language skills mean minimum wage, which at $8.44 per hour in New Jersey is not enough for self-sufficiency, let alone the savings required to reimburse travel costs. “Life is expensive anywhere if you’re making eight bucks an hour,” Kaper-Dale said.

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Prices are low at $5 for an entrée. Photo by David Berkwitz.

Back at the café, Yvonne is about to complete her morning shift. She swirls peanut butter into the pot of “vinyay wah chumbari,” Swahili for the “peanut beans” she’s made using vegetables a neighbor grew in her yard. Spinach that’s been melted in spices and oil rounds out lunch, along with chickpeas and eggplant sautéed with tomato and a pan of tender stewed chicken. These dishes will be offered with rice or those potatoes, crunchy on the outside, soft and fluffy in the middle. Just before the doors open, volunteer Susan Berkowitz arranges Yvonne’s entrees behind the cash register.

Berkowitz is a nurse who’s been out of work on disability. She’s lived in town for 20 years, but it was a story on NPR that brought her to the café shortly after the 2016 presidential election. She helps by shopping, tutoring and watching children while their parents attend classes. Though she’s not Christian, she said she’s found inspiration at the church. “This church is a something-else kind of place,” she said. Soon, she will start looking for work. “What I’ve come to realize is that the opposite of despair is action,” she said. “There’s just so much to do.”

* Last names and images of refugees and asylees are omitted to maintain privacy.

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Stacy Basko is a freelance writer and recipe developer with past lives in branding, marketing and non-profits. Her career has taken her into boardrooms, 4-star kitchens and state prisons. She writes in New Jersey, close enough, but not too far from New York City.

David Berkwitz, a former Newsweek photographer, is a freelance photojournalist and storyteller. His assignments have led him to photograph, and witness events and people that have changed the make-up of the world today. From the fall of the Soviet Union to the Tiananmen Square massacre and 9/11; to portraits of The Dalai Lama, U2’s Bono and Sir Paul McCartney.

Copyright © 500 Pens. June 2017