When Caterina Passoni ’18 first crossed paths with Nieda Abbas, an Iraqi refugee and mother of six, as her English-as-a-second-language teacher, Abbas had been unemployed for five years, living on cash assistance and unemployment benefits amounting to just $700 a month.
“Nieda barely speaks English, and she has no proof of her previous informal employment in a refugee camp,” Passoni told the News. “I knew she was a great cook, so we decided to start selling her food.”
Inspired by the stories of Abbas and refugees like her who have resettled in New Haven, Passoni and fellow Yale students launched the nonprofit Havenly — formerly known as “Snacktivism” — last spring. A nonprofit that aims to help local refugees find sustainable employment, Havenly operates out of a licensed commercial kitchen near Wooster Square, in which refugee chefs bake high-quality snacks that are then transported around the area by student volunteers. All revenue generated from sales is given directly to the refugees.
Now, Abbas makes a full living wage without cash assistance.
“A big part of our mission involves redirecting our privilege as Yale students to help refugee communities in New Haven,” said Passoni, now Havenly’s executive director. “The broad aim is to help refugees find sustainable employment as well as to encourage students at Yale to invest and buy from local communities.”
Last year, Havenly sold treats exclusively out of Yale’s butteries. But after a $15,000 jumpstart — made possible by the Tsai CITY accelerator program — the student project has morphed into a full-fledged company. Over the summer, recipes were standardized, proper licensing was obtained and a website was developed, according to Passoni. Now, a team of 20 Yale students oversees the daily operations of the startup.
Sofia Cianchi ’20, Havenly’s co-executive director, explained that the company is looking to expand both within and beyond New Haven, specifically through wholesale to local cafes and bakeries. At the same time, however, she emphasized the “enormous potential” to expand at the Yale, citing opportunities for students to order food through the company’s website.
Abbas is currently the only chef employed by Havenly. But Passoni said she hopes to help more refugees in the near future. Havenly is developing a new hands-on apprenticeship program, which will offer both work experience and job training to local refugees. The training component, Passoni explained, will include ESL classes, cultural literacy classes and soft skill development.
“We are creating a transitional job opportunity in which refugees earn while they learn,” Passoni said.
Havenly conducted a trial run at Book Trader Cafe over the summer and at Willoughby’s Coffee and Tea on York Street just last week. At both locations, the treats cooked by refugees were completely sold out before the end of the day.
David Duda, owner of Book Trader Cafe, told the News that the trial run was an overall success and was pleased that Havenly was continuing to grow.
“It seemed like a worthwhile cause, putting refugees’ talents to use. They made a very nice baklava which we don’t make here, so we were happy to sell them.” Duda said.
India June, manager of the Benjamin Franklin college buttery, found that the price of the treats proved to be an obstacle in sales. She said that — in the spring — undergraduates weren’t buying the treats, so many had to be thrown away. Last year, Havenly sold treats in a majority of the residential college butteries.
Another member of Franklin’s buttery team, Namra Zulfiqar ’21, agreed.
“It was nice that customers were helping to support someone who was struggling. But I think afterwards it was a matter of thinking they could buy a dollar cinnamon roll or a $3 or $4 baklava, and the cost didn’t really match the expectation.”
Next week, the refugee-made baklava will be offered in six out of the 14 residential college butteries.
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