A Refugee Coffee Shop

At first glance, it looks like any other Berkeley coffee shop: bags of gourmet beans displayed on racks, croissants and scones in a glass case, rows of young people engrossed in their laptops, the soft hum of conversation, and behind the counter the baristas at work at the espresso machines.          

But this is no ordinary coffee shop. It is a haven for refugees, run by and for people who have been forced to flee their country of origin. A colorful display on two walls behind the seated customers provides information on the United Nations refugee resettlement program and the typical 17-year process that it can take for a refugee family to get resettled in their adopted country.

This is the 1951 Coffee Shop on Channing Way in Berkeley. Another item on the wall references the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and its definition of a refugee as any person who, due to “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country [….] or is unwilling to return to it.”

My mother was a refugee. A young Jewish woman growing up in Prague in the 1930’s, she left Czechoslovakia a year before the Nazi invasion, and then fled Paris just weeks before the fall of France. She lived out the war years in England, where she eventually settled and lived until her death at the ripe old age of 83, dying peacefully at home, in her sleep.

Her family members who were unable to escape Czechoslovakia were not so fortunate; they perished in concentration camps. Like so many of her generation who survived, she didn’t like to dwell on her loss. She squirreled the pain away in some secret corner of her heart, and didn’t talk much about what she had been through.

But she would sometimes point out the tiny cottage in the village in Sussex, down the street from the house in which I was raised, and say “that’s where we all lived together, as refugees.” There were eight of them: five men and three women, Jewish or socialist or communist, from Czechoslovakia or Germany. They all survived only because they got out. They all lost family who stayed behind.

I have now written a novel based in part on my mother’s wartime experiences: When It’s Over (She Writes Press, September 2017). It’s a World War II novel with a difference, highlighting aspects of the home front that are not often acknowledged, portraying the life of refugees in Britain and the difficulties they faced.          

It was my daughter who first told me about the 1951 Coffee Shop. It’s just off Telegraph Avenue in Berkley. She suggested I check it out, so here I am. The young woman behind the counter wears a black hijab and smiles softly as she takes my order. “Where are you from?” I ask. “Syria”, she says and lowers her eyes to focus on making change from my $5 dollar bill. My latte is prepared by a young man from Eritrea.  It’s served in a ceramic cup balanced on a small wooded board, with the perfect amount of foam and decorated with a leaf-shaped swirl. I pick up some literature from the counter, and study it as I enjoy my drink.

The 1951 Coffee Company employs refugees from countries such as Bhutan, Uganda, Syria, Eritrea, Burma, Afghanistan and Iran, and has a two-week barista training program operated out of an Oakland location. It has partnerships with Blue Bottle and Starbucks and many local coffee shops that now employ its graduates. They also offer catering services, I learn.

I was planning a book reading for my novel in Berkeley, and wondering what kind of refreshments to provide. Here I found the perfect solution. I arrange for them to provide coffee, tea and cookies.

So last night at my reading at Books Inc. on Shattuck, folks not only got to hear me read from my novel, and draw comparisons between my mother’s experience, and those of refugees today; they also got to learn about this wonderful resource in our midst. Oh, and munch on delicious salted chocolate chip or rose pistachio cookies.

Check out their website. http://1951coffee.com/  And explore refugee support options in your own community.