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Steadier Footing

Common Ground program provides refugee job training

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Amidst a chattering dining room, candles flicker off mosaiced glass onto white linens as Dream Cafe chef Dilli Ram Gautam shakes hands with his Wednesday night patrons. He bows his head frequently, all smiles, repeating small thank yous while the full-bellied clink of wine glasses echoes behind him. Gautam, a Bhutanese refugee, is the evening's guest chef and has helped prepare a menu rich in fusion flavor—a blend of his traditional cuisine with Dream Cafe's organic, local ingredients.

Ringlet-headed Iraqi refugee brothers Masar and Sarmad Jasim gingerly place dishes like curried lamb and spicy green beans or butternut squash ravioli in creamy golden curry sauce in front of hungry patrons. Cafe owner Bethanne Osborn recently hired five refugees to work in her restaurant in collaboration with the Momentum Group's newly launched Common Ground program. Wednesdays she hosts a dinner with food inspired—and cooked—by her international employees.

The Jasim brothers know how to win a customer's heart—service with a smile. - LAURIE PEARMAN
  • Laurie Pearman
  • The Jasim brothers know how to win a customer's heart—service with a smile.

"The coolest thing about [hiring refugees] is that the customers have come to understand that this isn't their native language, that the servers don't really know what sour cream is or salsa," says Osborn. "They've been very understanding and extremely patient and supportive."

Dream Cafe's inaugural Wednesday night dinner on February 25 was so successful, Osborn says, "We had to lock the doors because we ran out of food." The dinner helped net $300 for the Common Ground program, a non-profit refugee job training program based in Boise that will soon open a small scale, refugee-run farm.

"Common Ground is a program of the Momentum Group that specifically focuses on job training, placement and development for the refugee population here in Boise," explains Tara Russell, founder and CEO of the Momentum Group.

Russell and her husband started the Momentum Group in 1999 while living in Thailand. They focused on providing job training for women leaving the sex industry and rural migrants seeking jobs in larger cities. After moving to Boise last summer, Russell searched for avenues to give back to her new community.

"All the work we do for Momentum Group is focused on creating economic independence for those who have the least within the international population—but in your neighborhood," says Russell. "We're new to Boise; we just had to learn about the neighborhood. We had to learn about the community and what's already going on."

Russell began volunteering with the International Rescue Committee and noticed a gap in the job-training opportunities available. She soon developed the Common Ground "eat local, live global" program in collaboration with Boise's three refugee resettlement agencies. The program strives to "train and employ as many refugees as soon as possible" in long-term, sustainable positions. With an all volunteer staff and a very limited budget, Common Ground has already started to see marked results.

"What we're trying to do is to show people that you can do a lot with a little," says Russell. "We placed 10 people in jobs in the last three weeks, and we've only spent $1,000 total since the inception of the program."

In addition to securing jobs for refugees at Dream Cafe, the newly opened Idaho Fry Company and a dairy farm in Oregon, Common Ground also plans to increase the supply of local organic food. They recently acquired land from the Eastwind Community Church that will become a farm and educational center. One of Common Ground's volunteers, Debbie Randall, will head up an intensive four-week training program starting March 30 at the farm site. The program covers everything from farm basics—watering, weeding and equipment maintenance—to non-farming job skills like basic home care. Each lesson plan strives to provide refugees with information essential to fields in which they will likely be working.

"I know we have such a strong international community in Boise," explains Randall. "But I haven't seen much integration or involvement going forth between this marginalized community and our mainstream community. It's nice to be bridging that gap."

Randall has also been assisting Common Ground with implementing continued job-training programs at institutions that have already hired refugees. Once a week, she helps employees at Dream Cafe perfect their newly acquired job skills on site—from prepping vegetables to tidying up the kitchen.

"I've worked in restaurants before, so I just lead by example," says Randall. "We talk about how efficiency matters in this kind of economy."

According to Russell, most of her volunteers are people who've been affected by the economic downturn. But instead of lamenting their fortune, they've decided to utilize their time helping refugees who have only an eight-month window to achieve economic independence before their federal aid expires.

"We would rather get them a job than just give them money," explains Russell. "That's what they want from a human dignity perspective, they want, just like we all want, economic independence."

The Common Ground program is one vehicle that can help them achieve that. In addition to her Wednesday night refugee dinners, Osborn has committed to using lettuce, tomatoes and squash farmed by refugees in her cafe this summer. She'll also be setting up a refugee-staffed vegetable stand outside of her store on the weekends with coffee and pastries from her cafe. But even though the Eastwind farm is progressing rapidly, and the Common Ground program, as a whole, continues to entice new volunteers weekly, the Momentum Group's future success hinges on Russell's fund-raising abilities. In the end, no matter how sustainable the veggies are, it's unsustainable to continue operating the organization pro bono.

"Nobody's being paid; it's 100 percent volunteer," says Russell. "But that's not sustainable forever, and that's why we're trying to raise funding."

Russell knows that success is in the numbers. And for an organization that only launched in January, those numbers already look stellar.

"We believe if we do it well, the strategic plans are to roll it out to additional cities," says Russell. "We have people in Los Angeles, people in Pennsylvania, people in North Carolina who work with refugees that are very interested in potentially running a Common Ground site there."

For more information on the Momentum Group, visit themomentumgroup.org. For more information on Wednesday night refugee dinners, visit boisedreamcafe.com or call 208-338-6632.