© Photo by M. Doudou Sinna

By Raye Mocioiu

Emma’s Torch, located in Brooklyn, is paying homage to a poet whose words greet newcomers to the country.

Emma Lazarus, a staunch supporter of immigrant rights and a prolific writer, wrote the sonnet ‘The New Colossus,’ which adorns the Statue of Liberty. The Emma of Emma’s Torch refers to her.

“Many don’t know that the famous line, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’ was written by Lazarus,” shares New York Director Dr. Kira O’Brien. “For over 100 years, those words have greeted thousands of refugees fleeing hardship and dreaming of a better life in America.”

With those words in mind, Emma’s Torch works to welcome refugees from over 40 countries, offering community and job training—a lifeline for newcomers.

Starting a new life in a new country can be extremely difficult, especially for those who have to learn a new language, on top of everything else. Acknowledging these specific stressors, Emma’s Torch leverages the power of the culinary industry to provide an innovative curriculum and holistic programming that promotes agency and empowerment, one plate at a time.

“Emma’s Torch Culinary Training Program welcomes refugees from 42+ countries with varying levels of culinary experience, language proficiency and less than five years in the United States on average,” shares Kira. “Approximately two-thirds of our students are women, many supporting and raising children on their own, and around ten percent of our students self-identify as LGBTQI+. The intersecting nature of forced migration leaves this population vulnerable to major stressors such as housing and food insecurity, joblessness, violence, and lack of access to basic healthcare.”

According to the UNHCR, adult women account for 25 percent of all forcibly displaced people, and children account for a shocking 42 percent. At a time when people have lost their homes, their comfort, and often their access to basic rights, a program that helps them get situated in a new country can be a lifesaver. Emma’s Torch provides refugees with culinary training, ENL classes, and interview preparation, all in the safety of a community in which they can build supportive relationships.

“Our programmatic approach is based on a combination of classroom and on-the-job training, which sets our students up for success upon graduation. The program consists of approximately 300 hours of culinary skills training and approximately 100 hours of personal development skills. Our students learn in both a classroom setting and through their work in our restaurant, café, and catering businesses. The program lasts for ten weeks, during which our students are paid $15 per hour. The program is full-time, and by the end of the 400-hour course, each student earns approximately $6,000. Upon graduation, we work with employer partners to secure career opportunities with upward mobility in the culinary industry for each of our graduates.”

Their programs prove to be immensely helpful, and seeing their students return to Emma’s Torch to teach new students after starting their own careers in the culinary industry is uniquely rewarding and creates a cycle of positivity.

“Emma’s Torch helped me believe in myself and encouraged me to achieve my dreams.”—Jonathan, Cohort 25 Graduate

Described as “New American cuisine prepared by new American students” by culinary director Alexander Harris, Emma’s Torch is able to take inspiration from their students and infuse a world of flavors into their menus. Harris works with students and guest chefs alike, using flavors from all over the globe and blending seasonal and local ingredients to make every meal an experience.

In fact, diners report that the graduation dinners are some of the best times to enjoy a meal at Emma’s Torch. Each trainee graduate has the opportunity to make a dish or two from their home country, sharing not only what they’ve learned throughout the program but also a taste of their history.

“The Cohort 27 celebration dinner was a wonderful experience that we shall never forget,” reports one guest.

It’s not only a celebration of diversity, but part of what makes the experience so much more unique. Allowing students to find a place of belonging in the culinary world paves the way for their cultural heritage and cuisine to be celebrated. Emma’s Torch shares the power of bonding and finding common ground through food.

“Refugees, asylees, and survivors of human trafficking from over 40 countries have passed through our kitchen. Although Lady Liberty is no longer the first site for those coming to the United States, the words still ring true. We honor Emma’s advocacy and her emphasis on vocational training. She created a legacy that we are proud to uphold,” Kira says.

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