NEW YORK ― It’s been nearly a year since Boubacar Diallo last saw his wife and young daughter.
The 40-year-old refugee left his home and family behind in Guinea last Christmas Eve, fleeing what he describes as violent political persecution. Now living in Brooklyn, New York, his heart aches for his loved ones, who are waiting to join him in America from an ocean away.
“I need them,” he said. “Sometimes if I think about them, I can’t sleep.”
Diallo said he started to fear for his life following Guinea’s 2015 presidential election period, which was rocked by violence and widespread human rights violations. He recalled being harassed, threatened and even tortured by policemen and different ethnic groups over differences in political opinion.
“If I continued to live in Guinea, I thought I’d be killed,” he said. “I don’t like to talk about it.”
So he began his long journey to the United States, first crossing through South and Central America. After arriving in the U.S. with limited English skills, he struggled to find a job ― one of the greatest challenges for many refugees adjusting to life in America, especially at a time of heightened xenophobia and anti-immigrant policies.
Little more than a year ago, Americans elected Donald Trump as their new president following an election campaign that capitalized on fear-mongering and disparaging refugees. Once in power, Trump’s administration swiftly moved to temporarily halt all refugee admissions to the U.S.
After his four-month resettlement suspension ended in October, Trump put in place a policy of “extreme vetting,” which will drastically affect immigration for newcomers from several Muslim-majority countries, making it a much slower and more complicated process. He has also announced plans to limit U.S. refugee admission to 45,000 for the 2018 fiscal year ― the country’s lowest-ever cap, down from the 110,000 set by President Barack Obama.
“If I continued to live in Guinea, I thought I’d be killed.”
“I don’t like politics,” said Diallo, who has tuned out the country’s political developments while adapting to his new surroundings. What matters, he said, is that he feels safe, and he is happy here. He moved from California to Texas, then finally to New York. It was there he connected with Kerry Brodie, a woman he credits with changing his life.
Brodie is the founder and executive director of Emma’s Torch, a nonprofit social enterprise that prepares refugees for careers in the culinary industry. Emma’s Torch Classroom Cafe in Red Hook, a neighborhood in southwest Brooklyn, is a small pop-up where refugee chefs-in-the-making complete a paid apprenticeship program. With funding from various foundations and donors, in addition to revenue from the cafe, they learn how to cook and prepare meals while developing their English skills.
“I like the tough love at Emma’s Torch,” Diallo said with a laugh. He joined the program as a dishwasher in June, then completed chef training there. His favorite meal he has learned to make is shakshuka, an Israeli dish of poached eggs in spiced tomato sauce.
Before leaving Guinea, he worked as a French teacher and didn’t cook very often. He’s in the process of working on asylum applications for his wife and daughter, so they can build a new life in America together.
“I’m very worried about them because I’m alone here,” he said. “My daughter is back there, she doesn’t understand why I left. She’s only 6. My wife is waiting for me.”
Emma’s Torch held a graduation ceremony in Red Hook on Oct. 19, where Diallo accepted his diploma with a beaming smile. “I’m very excited today, because now I have this certificate,” he said at the event. “It’s a good document. Everywhere I go, I can present this document. Now I’m Chef Boubacar!”
Diallo has already landed a full-time job doing food preparation at Little Park, a restaurant in Manhattan’s lower Tribeca neighborhood. He graduated from Emma’s Torch alongside his fellow chef-in-training, Nadia, a 33-year-old asylum seeker from Pakistan.
Nadia, who asked to be identified by her first name only for security reasons, came to the U.S. on a visa and is awaiting asylum status. She grew up in the northeastern city of Lahore, where she worked as a broadcast journalist for nearly a decade.
She reported on many potentially dangerous stories involving terrorist groups, including the Taliban, but said it was a culture of misogyny that ultimately made her feel unsafe and prompted her departure in 2014.
“You definitely face a lot of harassment as a female journalist in Pakistan.”
“Most people there don’t like ladies to work. They believe women should stay at home,” Nadia said. “My father allowed me to work. He always said, ‘It’s not your fault you’re a girl. You didn’t fill out an application asking God to make you a female.’”
Nadia said she was frequently demeaned and threatened on the job, noting she was one of very few female reporters in her country. She recounted having a disagreement with her male boss in Lahore. She said he told her, “If my wife was arguing with me like this, I’d slap her face.”
“I was standing in the newsroom along with at least 35 other people at the time,” she said. “You definitely face a lot of harassment as a female journalist in Pakistan.”
Since relocating to New York, she has done some online writing for community news outlets in addition to taking up cooking at Emma’s Torch ― a skill she never learned back home. From all the dishes she made since joining the program in August, Nadia says avocado toast is now her meal of choice. She misses her younger siblings and parents in Pakistan but is still “too scared to go back.”
“It’s not easy. I had to leave my profession, my home, my fame and my popularity because I couldn’t take such risks with my life. I was rebellious and resilient.”
Now, with her new training and support network, Nadia is in the process of interviewing to launch a career in New York’s food industry.
“All of our students have said that Emma’s Torch has drastically changed their lives,” said Brodie. “It’s not just about the paycheck ― they have a job where they are respected, they have a community at work where what they bring to the table matters.”
“It’s not just about the paycheck ― they have a job where they are respected.”
Brodie quit her job with The Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C., two years ago and moved to New York to attend culinary school and turn her dream for a refugee kitchen into a reality.
“I was really compelled by this idea that there are really huge opportunities in the food space to make a difference,” she said.
The pop-up cafe will close in Red Hook later this month and reopen at a new location in Brooklyn early next year. Brodie named the nonprofit after Emma Lazarus, who wrote the poem engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty. It reads in part: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”
″[Lazarus] believed that what defined the United States was our ability to welcome in strangers and serve as a place of refuge to those in need,” Brodie said. “We’ve always been a nation of immigrants.”
In the midst of what she described as a “push of xenophobia and closing off our borders in a way that’s really troubling,” Brodie says she’s been inspired by an “outpouring” of public support and solidarity.
“It’s not the political climate that I thought we’d be working in,” she said, “but we’re still here, and it motivates us to work harder.”