Graduation season is here. For most students across Denver, that means final exams, family events and a big sigh of relief once the ceremony is over. But for students enrolled in Ready for American Hospitality, graduation is just the beginning of fulfilling a dream — after surviving the nightmare of fleeing their home countries because of religious, ethnic or political persecution. The program, which operates on the University of Denver campus, introduces recent refugees to the concepts of food safety and hospitality, and awards certification so that they can move on to jobs in the food-service industry.
Anthony Cherwinski is the program manager for Ready for American Hospitality, a collaboration between DU and the African Community Center that launched in 2012. The ACC, along with two other refugee resettlement organizations, helps identify candidates for the class, which Cherwinski teaches with the help of interns and an assistant from the food-safety industry. The enrollees, often only days into their new lives in the United States, are paired with DU students to help ease the transition into campus life; DU’s Human Capital Management program helps out by providing résumé and job-interview advice.
DU’s Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management houses a professional training kitchen where Cherwinski’s students learn the basics of food prep and service. One class session might cover the differences between cleaning and sanitizing, while another might be a hands-on demonstration of how to handle raw chicken, from the refrigerator to the plate. The students also participate in banquet service for on-campus events, including a recent chancellor’s dinner.
Each class consists of ten to fifteen students; the majority are from Africa’s many countries. But the Trump administration’s recent crackdown on immigration and refugees has affected the enrollment. “The travel ban comes into play in our program,” Cherwinski explains. “Most of our students have been in the U.S. for eight or nine months, but the number of new immigrants coming in has slowed to a trickle.”
Molumba Ibrahim Tombwe is a graduate of the program’s most recent class, its seventeenth, which ran all day, five days a week, through most of April; graduation was April 26. Tombwe prefers to be called “Amit,” a nickname that means “American” in his home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he has not been for nearly two decades. After fleeing the DRC, Tombwe lived in a refugee camp in Uganda for more than a dozen years before coming to the United States just days before the class started.
Tombwe’s nickname is appropriate; he’s often dressed from head to toe in red, white and blue, with his cap and shoes sporting patriotic stars. He grew up speaking French, but learned English during his long years in the Ugandan refugee camp and served as a translator for other incoming refugees. Because of the many languages spoken by Ready for American Hospitality students, classes are designed with a variety of teaching styles. “The method that they use to teach is very excellent,” Tombwe notes.
With his new certification, Tombwe hopes to enter a field where he can assist people living with HIV (or “PLH,” as he calls them) through nutrition and food service, since that’s what he did before he came to America. “Because I like my people, the PLH, I want to continue to help them,” he explains.
Kayba Djama also came to the U.S. from Africa, from the tiny country of Djibouti. She was in college there when her father told her he’d arranged a marriage. Rather than submit, she applied for a travel visa and then fled the country, knowing that to stay would mean abuse and possibly death if she refused the marriage. Once she arrived in the U.S., she applied for and received asylum.
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That was several years ago, and after a short time in Maine (where she says she was treated with open hostility and prejudice), Djama married a man of her choosing and moved to Colorado. She now has two children and a green card, and is using Ready for American Hospitality as a way to enter into a new profession while her children begin daycare.
Entering the workforce in a new country while attempting to master the language, integrate into the culture and form relationships is no easy task. Tombwe had a friend from his home country who had already relocated to Denver, so he selected Colorado when given a choice of places where he could begin his new life. He has already found a few other immigrants from the DRC here, and hopes to make further connections in Denver’s African community.
Cherwinski and his staff, as well as students of the Fritz Knoebel School, pitch in to help these new residents as much as possible, offering rides when weather is bad or public transportation proves difficult; the entire group acts as a kind of informal ESL class to help the newcomers with their English skills and with job-placement assistance. And most get jobs: According to program stats, the average hourly wage for those in the previous graduating class was $10.22, and the ninety-day job-retention rate stands at 100 percent.
Many of the graduates of Ready for American Hospitality won’t actually work in restaurant jobs, but will instead choose to work in hospitals, schools and other facilities where food is prepared. “I would like to work in hotels,” Djama says, explaining that she loves both working with food and making new acquaintances in Colorado. “The people are so friendly here,” she adds, “and the weather is good.” Welcome to America.