Meg Karki (left), a Bhutanese refugee, and his 1951 Coffee colleague prepare a drink. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The morning after President Donald Trump ordered the first travel ban, barring entrance into the U.S. from seven countries and denying Syrian refugees, many in the Bay Area woke up wondering what they could do to help those affected.

For some, the first step was deciding where to get their caffeine fix.

1951 Coffee, a barista training program and nonprofit coffee shop in Berkeley staffed entirely by refugees, had opened just days earlier near the Cal campus. When founders Rachel Taber and Doug Hewitt began developing the concept about two years earlier, they had no idea the refugee crisis would become a dinner table conversation topic. Or that so many people would be looking for ways to support those who had settled in the U.S.

Those first days after the travel ban was instated, business at 1951 Coffee was booming enough to warrant the hiring of two additional employees.

“We had staffed for slow growth. We had not staffed for lines all day long,” Taber said.

Now ten baristas — all refugees, asylum seekers or Special Immigrant Visa holders from many different countries — serve up fresh Verve coffee, Blue Willow tea and sandwiches seven days a week. All the employees are graduates of the 1951 training program, a two-week crash course on making cappuccinos and interviewing for jobs. The 40 others who have gone through the program are mostly employed at other Bay Area cafés now, including Blue Bottle and Peet’s.

The 1951 storefront at 2410 Channing Way is nondescript and somewhat easy to miss, but the interior is bright and sleek with a bold color scheme. Maps and mini educational exhibits cover the walls. The café has quickly become a hot study spot for UC Berkeley students, but as those students begin to leave campus for the summer, Taber and Hewitt are looking for ways to expand their reach to the rest of the community and keep operations going strong.

The mission is clear at 1951 Coffee Company. Photo: 1951 Coffee/Facebook

On Saturday, May 20, 1951 Coffee will host Stand with Refugees, a fundraiser at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, where there will be wine, Fieldwork Brewing beer, music and appetizers catered by a Syrian family new to the U.S. The event came together after two customers approached 1951 asking how they could help.

“The Berkeley community has honestly been freaking incredible for allowing this all to happen and work,” Taber said.

But the demand — both from refugees interested in participating in the training program and from employers looking to hire them — has only grown since inauguration week.

“We could run this class so much more if we had the money to do it,” Taber said. It costs $2,000 to put someone through the program, she said. Taber and Hewitt continue working with the graduates afterwards to find them employment and help them settle into their new jobs.

1951 Coffee has become a hot study spot for UC Berkeley students. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The 1951 training program is supported by foundations, but the coffee shop is run on revenue from sales and donations. So far it has nearly broken even, Taber said. She and Hewitt rent the space from the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, and pay employees, who work 32-40 hours a week, $13 an hour plus health benefits. Two senior baristas are paid more. For most who work in the shop, the wages are the only, or primary, source of income for their families.

Taber and Hewitt used to be colleagues at the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that provides global humanitarian aid and runs refugee resettlement programs, so they know how important it is for a refugee to find a job quickly — not just for the financial security, but to make social connections and gain a sense of dignity, Taber said.

One of the senior baristas at 1951, Meg Karki, became good friends with Hewitt when he worked at the IRC. A Bhutanese refugee who came to the U.S. after living in a Nepali refugee camp for 19 years, Karki found his first American job with the help of the IRC, then ended up volunteering there to help others do the same. He later became one of the first graduates of the 1951 training program.

He was as astounded as his bosses were by the sheer number of customers on 1951’s first few days in business.

Rachel Taber started the 1951 Coffee training program with Doug Hewitt in 2016, followed by the opening of the coffee shop in January. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“But it was all people who were positive and happy we are here, so it wasn’t hard. It was exciting,” he said. Now some of those people are regulars, and he knows their names and orders by heart.

Still, it was challenging to witness the pain and fear his colleagues were experiencing while the ban was in place.

“Personally it doesn’t affect me because my family are here. But I feel bad for the three Syrians who work here. That made me angry and still makes me angry,” Karki said.

The staff have some light moments together too. They went bowling the other week, and Karki is learning Arabic from a co-worker. And for all of the employees, a day on the job doubles as an immersive English class.

“When you’re chatting and interacting with different kinds of people every day, it improves a lot,” Karki said.

The staff members can continue working at the shop as long as they need to get off the ground, Taber said.

Stand with Refugees takes place on Saturday, May 20, 6-8 p.m. at the David Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way, Berkeley. Tickets are available online.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...