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University of Denver program helps refugees enter hospitality industry

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Posted at 5:04 PM, Feb 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-23 14:21:03-05

DENVER — Refugees from around the world are learning about the hospitality industry through a special program at the University of Denver.

Through the five-week Ready for American Hospitality (RAH) program, refugees work with DU students and professional chefs to learn about food safety, hospitality jobs and U.S. work culture.

“Established initially by the African Community Center (ACC), the idea for the hospitality kind of training school program was established by ACC, and it was brought to DU,” said Jessi Kalambayi, RAH program manager. “It's 100 hours spent learning about the basic hospitality skills, helping them to get ready for working in the United States. And then of course, cultural orientation, which are often things that they are expected to learn on their own once they are resettled in the United States. However, this program kind of creates a very safe space to do that.”

Learning English is also a part of the curriculum.

“We are in an English-speaking country, we are often working with people who are from, let's say, French-speaking countries, or Arabic-speaking countries or Dari… and so to be able to, obviously, be successful in the country, that's English speaking, we want to establish that skill,” Kalambayi said.

Kalambayi says within a few weeks, refugees are also learning hands-on skills.

“The second, third and fourth week, we're actually starting to have them get paid work experience in the kitchen. So I'll be sending them down to the kitchen, sometimes work in dishwashing, or the chef has them working in prep, maybe it's just cutting vegetables one day, maybe another day it's actually helping cook a meal,” she said. “The success of the program, it's been tremendous to see the graduates be able to go on into the workforce and succeed. We've had a few students who have been able to go in and open their own restaurants.”

As an immigrant herself, Kalambayi says she relates to many of the RAH participants.

“I'm originally from Congo, but raised in South Africa. So as an immigrant myself, I've been able to connect very easily with this community because I understand the struggles of transitioning into a new country, and then also having to do it without the support,” she said.

During a time when many restaurant owners report struggling to hire support staff, Kalambayi says RAH is fulfilling a need.

“The best thing is, like, I have never been in a professional kitchen. That's a super thing for me,” RAH participant Mohammad Tahir Nabizada said.

Nabizada, who’s from Afghanistan, moved to the United States six months ago.

“Ready for American Hospitality, it was a good opportunity for, like, immigrants like us, when we come so we can experience some jobs,” Nabizada said.

Upendo, a RAH participant who arrived from Tanzania two months ago, says the program is helping him become more comfortable in his new country.

“I like this program because it's preparing people to be able to work and to be confident to talk to people and to learn another language different than our mother tongue,” he said.

As the next cohort of RAH participants prepares to complete the program, acclaimed Chef Zoe Adjonyoh is helping them prepare and serve a five-course meal on Thursday, Feb. 23 for the annual Public Good Gala. The next gala will be held May 11.

To learn more about RAH or to donate to the program, click here.

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