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More than just granola: how Beautiful Day supports refugees while making snacks

Nonprofit provides refugees with job skills, community

Over a hundred refugees arrive in Rhode Island every year — but they often lack the long-term support needed to assimilate and adjust. While the Rhode Island Department of Human Services aims to help refugees achieve self-sufficiency “within the shortest possible time,” programs like Beautiful Day provide vital support even after governmental assistance ends a few months after refugees arrive, according to Beautiful Day Director of Strategic Partnerships Rebecca Garland.

Employing the “unemployable”

Beautiful Day is a nonprofit organization based in Rhode Island that hires refugees and provides on-the-job training. The organization makes and sells their own granola while simultaneously providing refugees with important job skills by allowing them to work in the kitchen and sell their products at the farmers’ market.

“The people we work with are referred to us as being unemployable,” Garland said

The organization takes pride in working with people who often are illiterate and may not have transferable job skills. “If you were a nomadic camel herder from Somalia, you're probably not going to be able to do that job here in the (United States),” Garland said

Refugees at Beautiful Day “are not the kinds of people who are going to be able to get jobs in four months after the federal (assistance)” stops, she added.

Teddi Jallow, co-founder of the Refugee Dream Center, echoed Garland’s emphasis on how the government does not provide enough long-term support for refugees.

“Imagine coming from a different country — different language, different background, everything is different — and you are expected to be self-sufficient or to be independent after two months. That is impossible,” Jallow said. 

By providing hands-on training, Beautiful Day aims to help refugees enter the American workforce. According to Garland, the organization has been successful in achieving this goal, as 70 percent of people who graduate from their training programs find permanent employment.

The kitchen

One of the reasons the founders chose granola as their product is how granola production can bypass the language barrier. Trainees in the Beautiful Day kitchen represent a wide range of nationalities and religions; most do not speak English or share a common language. Garland explained that granola production can be taught using hand gestures. Supervisors demonstrate different aspects of the cooking process, and the trainees can watch and replicate these procedures.

Garland characterized their kitchen as “totally inspiring,” noting in particular the collaboration and sense of community that exists among refugees despite their different cultural backgrounds. The key, Garland said, is laughter.

“They laugh a lot. They sing a lot. They jump around and dance a lot. They listen to music a lot. They are the noisiest group of people.” In the absence of a common language, the refugees manage to use non-verbal communication to create an atmosphere of camaraderie in the kitchen.

In fact, language is often not much of a barrier for these refugees. Garland mentioned that one of Beautiful Day’s kitchen trainers, a Somalian camel herder, is “brilliant at putting people at ease.” He “uses universal languages like humor” and “makes everybody comfortable.” Using numbers, the trainer also helped the organization develop an inventory system. 

For Garland, the most unique aspect of Beautiful Day is the culture in their workplace. The kitchen is composed of a team “that is so diverse that they can't even talk to each other,” she said. “And it works.” 

COVID-19: A scary time for refugees

In March of 2020, when the pandemic first started to gain speed in the United States, Beautiful Day was told that they had three hours to evacuate the kitchen that they had rented for the past 12 years. Even after they relocated, the kitchen had to be shut down for long periods of time after employees were exposed to COVID-19.

“It would take us sometimes a couple of weeks before we could convince somebody to get tested,” Garland said. Many refugees are averse to testing and contact tracing because they have had traumatic experiences before they arrived in Rhode Island that have led to a distrust of the government. 

“You're already traumatized. And then, people are trying to tell you what to do and trying to make you do things that you don't really understand,” she said. “It’s been a very scary time for refugees.” Beautiful Day staff would often have to accompany the refugees to receive COVID-19 tests because they trusted people in the organization, not the government officials, Garland said.   

Despite obstacles brought about by the pandemic, last year was a “blessing in disguise” for Beautiful Day, Garland said. After farmers’ markets closed, the organization redesigned its website to make it easier for customers to buy their products online. As a result, sales increased by 25 percent in 2020 compared to that of 2019. 

Still, Jallow said the pandemic has been “frustrating and difficult” for the refugee community in Rhode Island. 

Jallow described a difficulty often faced by refugees juggling strict jobs and child care: “My factories are still working … I have nobody to leave my kids with … so, I either lose my job, or go to work and leave my young kids at home, which is very unsafe and is not even allowed.”

Online learning has also posed an issue for many refugee children. As students have transitioned to remote learning “it’s just hard, and a lot of these students are just left behind if they don’t have resources at home … or if their parents are working full time to support the family,” said Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment fellow Jennifer Katz ‘20.

It is especially important to provide support for refugees now because “a lot of the challenges and obstacles that refugee youth had been facing (have) been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she added. 

Garland discussed the importance of raising awareness about the refugee experience, saying that many people are deeply misinformed about and unfamiliar with refugees. “They’re just people,” Garland said. “They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But they're people like you and me. They have dreams, they have hopes, they have skills, they have gifts.” Becoming more involved in programs like Beautiful Day, the Refugee Dream Center or BRYTE is how people can “go out there and meet refugees,” she said. 

Katz agrees that working with a refugee as a BRYTE mentor has been fulfilling for both herself and her mentee. “It’s not like a unidirectional thing where we’re supporting the refugees,” she said, adding that being in the program has been one of the most rewarding experiences during her time at the University. The refugee family she mentored was like “a second family in Providence.” 

Jallow also feels strongly about educating the public about refugees. She hopes more people can “get out of their comfort zone” and actively learn more about the refugee experience. “This is how other people will hear about us, and we cannot do this work alone without the help of people,” she added

Ultimately, when the community participates in efforts to help refugees become self-sufficient, it benefits everyone. “You are not only doing it for them, you are doing it for your community, Jallow said. “If these people are self sufficient, they are also going to help other people, which is helping to build our community together.”

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