The Statue of Liberty has watched over New York Harbor since 1886, and the words on her base (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”) have inspired millions to come here in search of the American Dream … and to leave their nightmares behind.
Asylum-seekers like Fanta Sylla, who left the Ivory Coast (“I needed someplace to be safe [from] torture”), and Ruslan Abdraimov, who came the United States from Russia to escape persecution, are safe now, with a little help from a little restaurant in Brooklyn.
Kerry Brodie founded Emma’s Torch five years ago, to “empower refugees through culinary education.”
Correspondent Nancy Giles asked, “Why did you name it Emma’s Torch?”
“We’re named after Emma Lazarus, who wrote the poem that’s on the Statue of Liberty,” Brodie replied. “She was a staunch advocate for refugees, and we really hope that we can just keep on her good work.”
Brodie’s noble idea was inspired by an unthinkable tragedy: “There was a photo of Alan Kurdi, who was a three-year-old little boy whose body was washed up on the shores of Greece. And for many people, myself included, that was a moment of realizing, when we talk about displaced people around the world, we’re talking about that little boy.
“And for me, that was really a moment of reckoning: What am I going to do to make sure that in some small way we’re changing that story?”
Job training is how she’s changing the story. Students at Emma’s Torch are paid $15 an hour to learn how to cook. It’s a ten-week program. So far, 120 refugees, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, have graduated, representing 40 countries in all. All are here legally as they await asylum hearings.
B.C. (Before COVID), the meals were fancier, and diners ate inside. These days it’s take-out on the patio – but man, the food is still yummy!
Brodie said, “Our students are really from all over the world. You walk into our kitchen, you’re gonna hear a lot of different languages and learn from a lot of different people.”
Fortunately, Alex Harris speaks more than a few of those languages. He’s the top chef here, and makes sure every student gets the gear they need, from a striped apron and notebook to the chef’s knife: “This is your favorite tool,” he told his class.
Students learn the basics, including how to sharpen their knife; how to see if a fish is fresh (the eyes, said Harris, “should be clear and not very white”); and, perhaps most important, how to get a job, with volunteers who work in the culinary industry coming in to do practice interviews.
And when they graduate, they are much in demand.
Naseema Bachshi rose to became head chef at Sahadi’s, a James Beard Award-winning grocery store in Brooklyn. Not long ago, she was fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Giles asked, her, “At Emma’s Torch you were just learning how to chop and what not. Look at you – head chef! How’d that happen?”
“Because Emma’s Torch help me, teach me everything,” Bachshi said.
Fanta Sylla, from the Ivory Coast, joined Bachshi at Sahadi’s right after she graduated: “Me, I heard about Emma’s Torch in Bellevue hospital. I’m part of program for survivors of torture. They asked me, ‘What you like to do?’ I said, ‘I love cooking!'”
Christine Sahadi Whelan, who runs Sahadi’s, said Sylla is really great at rolling grape leaves. “She came here with very good skills, I have to say. She’s very good with her fingers. You have to form it manually, there is no machine. She caught on really quick. So, we’re delighted.”
So, just how valuable is an Emma’s Torch diploma? According to Brodie, “Before COVID, depending on the time of year, we were looking at between 90% and 100% job placement rate for those looking for work. Our students are incredible. I, in particular, used to joke that a lot of our students ended up in restaurants I couldn’t get a reservation to!”
It can certainly be hard to get a reservation at Olmsted; it’s been called “the hottest restaurant in Brooklyn.”
Greg Baxtrom, the chef at Olmsted, currently has three Emma’s Torch graduates on staff, and wishes he had more. “It’s not like I’m a saint,” he said. “I’m just like, ‘Oh my God, look, I’m hiring,’ you know? It helps. It helps to hire talented people!”
Giles asked, “These cooks, they’re coming from refugee situations, or even victims of torture, I mean, they’re coming here from other countries. Do you feel like they’re taking jobs away from Americans?”
“I have a job posting that goes up every day that doesn’t get replies,” Baxtrom replied.
“So, that’s a firm ‘No.'”
Which brings us to Vietnamese pizza. “It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” Baxtrom said.
It was a dish served up by Thu Pham, a Vietnamese refugee and Emma’s Torch graduate who worked at Olmsted right before the pandemic hit.
Pham told Giles, “Chef Greg saw it, like, ‘What is this?’ I said, ‘I make Vietnamese pizza.’ So, he says, ‘Put it on the menu.’ So, I said, ‘What? Are you serious?'”
“How did that feel to have that item on the menu?”
“I feel, like, empowered,” she replied.
Giles asked Baxtrom, “Do you miss her?”
“I do. She ended up going back to Emma’s Torch. And I’d be lying if I hadn’t tried to call her and get her to come back!”
But Thu Pham had far more important matters on her menu: She showed Giles a photo of when she became an American citizen.
“A tear in my eyes because of happiness,” Pham said. “Like, ‘Oh. That’s the moment.” I really like, ‘Oh, yes. So happy!'”
Another American Dream came true. Emma Lazarus would be proud.
Happy birthday, America!
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Story produced by Richard Buddenhagen. Editor: Emanuele Secci.