Anasthasia Shilov

Havenly Treats, a New Haven nonprofit that works to strengthen the economic and political power of refugee women, reopened last Tuesday. The new, long-term location at 25 Temple St., which has limited seating and boatloads of baklava, is a dream come true for the organization’s founders.

Since they began selling baklava in the spring of 2018, Havenly Treats has moved locations often, sharing kitchens with the New Haven Jewish Community Center, Whole G bakery and Katalina’s Bakery. This status often made it more difficult for the organization to fulfill its primary goal: providing refugee women with job training, education and community organizing skills. According to the founders, the new location provides the stability that the organization needs — especially during a pandemic — and allows them to consider their future goals.

“This is a stable place,” said Nieda Abbas, the head chef, trainer and co-founder of Havenly Treats. “It gives us room to breathe, room to relax, gives our spirit a break.”

The current Havenly location previously belonged to Mr. Crab’s — a seafood shack with crab-shaped American flags lining the walls. Havenly directors said the process of changing the atmosphere required substantial vision. But the staff did not undertake it alone. Instead, they got help from Emerge, a New Haven nonprofit that assists formerly incarcerated people with getting jobs in construction and provides them with personal and emotional support. Emerge staff worked collaboratively with Havenly, building the walls in the new location. Havenly also worked with MakeHaven, who put up signs and decorated the walls with vinyl stickers. Miguel Angel Mendoza, a local artist who immigrated to Connecticut from Oaxaca twenty years ago, plans to paint a mural on Havenly’s front window depicting symbols reflective of their mission.

“It really does feel like a labor of love and a team effort,” said Camila Guiza-Chavez, community outreach director at Havenly.

The Temple Street location, which is equipped with both a large kitchen and classrooms, is essential for operating Havenly’s fellowship program. The program provides fellows with paid work experience and adult education, reflecting Havenly’s mission that “no one should be forced to choose between making an income and getting an education.” While the program previously focused on employing Arabic-speaking women from the Middle East and North Africa region, it has recently expanded to include Spanish-speaking fellows. There are six women in the current cohort of the program: four from Sudan, one from Mexico and one from Guatemala. Some have lived in New Haven for 20 years, while others moved to the city just a couple of months ago. Guiza-Chavez said that the fellows have different goals for the program, ranging from getting a degree to securing a job in the food industry.

During the fellowship, the women work at the restaurant 15-20 hours a week. They also attend four to six hours of workshops, which include curricula for ESL, self-advocacy and political education, all developed in-house. After the six months of training, Havenly and their community partners provide support for the fellows to secure stable employment. 

While Havenly has translators for classes and provides individual support, there are no translators in the kitchen. Abbas and the fellows work together to find ways around language barriers. They communicate through English or with gestures, and they have succeeded in creating bonds that extend far beyond the restaurant.

“I don’t treat the fellows as workers or trainees,” Abbas said. “I treat them like my sisters.”

It is no surprise that those involved in Havenly view it as a family. The organization is dedicated to forging a long-term support network, and graduates of the fellowship are encouraged to become trainers for the new cohorts.

The support network is one facet of Havenly’s approach to refugee integration, which focuses not only on getting a job but on ending cycles of structural marginalization. Caterina Passoni, the executive director and co-founder of Havenly Treats, believes the Havenly model has the potential to impact how the Elm City approaches refugee integration more broadly. Over the summer, Havenly produced a graphic series where they started discussions on what it means to be a refugee.

“It’s important to emphasize that we define refugees as people who came here seeking refuge,” said Guiza-Chavez. “We don’t use that word as it’s legally defined in the U.S. … We stick to its more pure or basic form.”

The graphic series also explored the overlap between Havenly’s mission and the Black Lives Matter movement. Yale students engaged with the series, and Guiza-Chavez emphasized that students should understand refugee and immigration issues as related to other social justice movements in the United States. She also sees working with Havenly as one way for Yale students to engage in mutual aid efforts “distributing resources” from the University to New Haven.

“One thing that happens at Yale is refugee integration silos itself and becomes categorized,” she said. “I would like to produce more material that helps [Yale] students engage with how we think about what we do.”

Yale students comprise most of the volunteer intern team at Havenly Treats, and Guiza-Chavez said they are crucial to the organization’s work, performing tasks ranging from formatting menus to translating. Havenly Treats currently has four open intern positions, in which interns would provide one-on-one support to one of the fellows. Beyond interning, Passoni says there are many ways community members can engage with their work.

“Just ordering at the counter helps [the women] with the training, practicing English, practicing visual literacy,” said Passoni, adding that people can also help by publicizing Havenly’s advocacy workshops and fighting for better working conditions for refugees and immigrants.

Havenly’s mission to help refugee women prosper is visible in every element of their work; 100 percent of profits support refugee women. The mission is particularly personal to Nieda Abbas, who is originally from Iraq and survived war and life in refugee camps. Guiza-Chavez firmly believes it is Abbas’s passion and skill for cooking that makes Havenly what it is.

When Havenly first started, it focused on selling desserts. But that model has changed due to COVID-19. Between March and June of 2020, Havenly fellows served over 5,000 meals through the COVID-19 food relief program, focusing on feeding people who were left out of the government response to the pandemic. And in the summer of 2020, Havenly continued their food relief program while also expanding their store menu to include savory Middle Eastern dishes. On their website, they now describe themselves as “a mezze bar with a mission.”

Dishes like falafel, biryani and mujaddara are currently on offer for contactless pickup at their storefront, in addition to the classic baklava. But the directors of Havenly also hope that their new location will become more than a restaurant. They want people of all cultures and languages to feel at home there and dream of eventually adding study spaces and an on-site child care facility. 

“Especially after COVID ends, it would be really wonderful to host different kinds of events and make this a space that is multi-use and alive,” said Guiza-Chavez.

Havenly Treats aims to have 15 women per cohort per kitchen and to create more chapters in other Connecticut cities and beyond. But no matter how far they expand, they will stay true to their mission of empowering refugee women to shape their communities.

“Havenly was made by my hands,” Abbas said. “My dream was to open a restaurant and to have a home … Now I have both.”

Dominique Castanheira | dominique.castanheira@yale.edu