Refugees call DU’s Ready for American Hospitality program “dream come true”

It was showtime Thursday night for the 14 refugees hustling around an industrial kitchen inside a University of Denver banquet hall, spreading goat cheese atop crostinis, scooping ice into water glasses and perfecting the plating of a charred okra salad.

The refugees — new to the U.S. from places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo and Turkmenistan — worked alongside their DU hospitality management student mentors, who had spent the past five weeks training their newly arrived friends in food safety and U.S. workforce culture through the university’s Ready for American Hospitality program.

Thursday night was the culmination of their learning, a fine dining experience at DU’s Joy Burns Center that the refugees and their college counterparts put on for more than 120 people.

The one-of-a-kind program provides learning on a deeper level for all involved, said Cheri Young, associate professor at DU’s Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management. Students in her course on human capital act as mentors to the refugees.

The DU students are tasked with interviewing, training and managing the refugees, who are referred to the program through the Denver-based African Community Center.

The refugees learn the basics of food safety, food preparation, cooking skills and U.S. restaurant culture in an environment where they’re able to practice English, forge friendships and get job offers post-program.

“This is my dream come true,” said Pamela Bukuru, 33, who fled Congo and came to Colorado from a refugee camp in Zambia.

True hospitality

In many cases, the refugees already know the true meaning of hospitality, Young said.

As part of the course, the DU students visit their refugee mentees — who aren’t students at the university — in their new homes. The DU students take public transportation there to better understand the obstacles and life experiences their mentees are going through.

Most refugees in early resettlement start in humble beginnings, Young said, and her students are continually awed when the mentees and their families offer up their only silverware to eat dinner or provide their only chair while choosing to stand.

“That is true hospitality,” Young said. “That’s a hospitality most of my DU students would never have otherwise experienced. This program gets them out of their own heads. They can get so obsessed with their own life and a big paper they have due, but this opens up their whole world. They start learning about countries they’ve never heard of. They start caring about world politics and are invested in these people’s lives. The refugees talk about how our students are their first American friends.”

DU student Anahi Mendivil, 20, is studying hospitality management to learn how to ensure workers are treated fairly, she said. Her favorite part of working with the refugees is hearing their stories on the first day and feeling invigorated by their resilience.

On Thursday night, she helped set the dining tables alongside her mentees before guests arrived.

“What I enjoy is making connections,” Mendivil said. “We’re training them and then we’re working alongside them and giving them encouragement. For me, they are an inspiration.”

While the program — established in 2012 — feels good, it also garners results. Representatives from the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and Refugee Council USA recognized Ready for American Hospitality as a crucial resource for resettled refugees, DU officials said.

Once they’ve completed the program, 86% of the Ready for American Hospitality students over the years gained employment and 90% meet a 90-day job retention rate at that first job, according to DU.

Those first jobs out of the hospitality program can be a stepping stone for bigger dreams.

Mohamed Alnouri, owner of Jasmine Syrian Food in Aurora, said he learned everything about the restaurant industry from being in Ready for American Hospitality’s 2017 cohort. Well, almost everything. He has to give credit to his culinary teacher mother, too.

Alnouri’s restaurant serves food from his home country of Syria, including hummus with pita bread, gyros and lentil soup. He said the program helped him get a leg up in the restaurant business, a long-held aspiration for him.

The Ready for American Hospitality students are taught knife skills, how to operate a professional dishwasher, the proper temperatures to cook certain foods, and sanitizing and cleaning skills, among other basics, program manager Jessi Kalambayi said..

“The main and most important thing is this program builds confidence,” Kalambayi said. “Some may have never had any educational background, so to be able to be a part of the program, especially at DU, creates such an amazing opportunity.”

Christine Fadhili, a refugee from Congo, said she’s most enjoyed learning to cook while improving her English. On Thursday night, Fadhili was assigned as a beverage server and burst with excitement at the idea of serving real guests and making conversation with them.

“I can’t wait to welcome them,” Fadhili said about an hour before the dinner began. “I am ready. I have learned so many things, and I know what to do.”

Students in the program also receive interviewing and resume help and go through a hiring simulation conducted by the DU mentors, who get to practice interviewing job applicants, hiring, human resources management and training protocols in a way that’s more practical than reading out of a textbook, Young said.

“It’s a very nice program,” said Alnouri, whose restaurant is housed in the refugee-centric Mango House building in Aurora, which offers food, health care, shops, religious gatherings and other events focused on refugees, people who’ve been granted asylum and undocumented immigrants. “I would recommend it for someone interested in restaurants.”

The quarterly dinners, called the Public Good Gala, feature a guest chef who helps guide the menu.

This quarter’s chef was Zoe Adjonyoh, founder of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen and winner of the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 Iconoclast Award. Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen is both a cookbook and a movement established in 2010 to bring African food to the masses through kitchen residencies, mobile catering and more.

Details about attending one of the dinners, partnering with Ready for American Hospitality or donating to the program can be found on DU’s website.

Adjonyoh zoomed through the kitchen Thursday night in her bright yellow Crocs making sure the food — dishes such as groundnut stew with lamb, dodo and yam — was just right and the students were on the right track.

“The benefits are intergenerational”

To keep the Ready for American Hospitality students on that promising track post-program, DU partners with companies in the local hospitality industry like hotel management group Sage Hospitality.

Sage conducts interviews with refugee students and offers many of them jobs after they finish the program. Some cohorts have had 100% of their participants employed by Sage by the end of the program, according to DU.

Bukuru, who beamed while dropping off ice water at the fancy dinner tables in a DU banquet hall, already had a hospitality job lined up at Denver’s Rally Hotel.

“It is because of all the experiences I have had here and everything I learned,” Bukuru said. “I am proud of it.”

The refugees have reason to be proud, said Ron Buzard, managing director at the African Community Center, which helps refugees settle in Denver.

Many are escaping persecution and trauma and, once the arrive in the United States, are then faced with culture shock, language barriers and obstacles such as lack of child care or transportation problems.

The African Community Center connects the refugees with resources that can help them pursue their training and the program provides them a small stipend while they learn, Buzard said.

“I always stress to those who finish that this is a huge achievement for not only yourself but your children,” Buzard said. “They have seen you do something you never even dreamed you could do — graduate from a program so soon after entering the U.S. and do it in English. This is huge. The benefits are intergenerational.”

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