Refugee women find sisterhood and support in New Haven – NBC Connecticut


The heartbreaking scenes of despair among Ukrainian refugees bring back painful memories for Nieda Abbas.

“When I see the kids and the mothers leaving and out on the streets, that’s exactly what we’ve been through,” she told NBC Connecticut’s Heidi Voight. Abbas is a war refugee in Iraq. The owner of three restaurants in Baghdad, her businesses were bombed, forcing her to flee with her seven children in 2004.

“My youngest was a year old and he was in my arms,” she recalls. “And it’s very difficult for me to even think back to that time.”

The family fled to Turkey and Syria, where the violence of war would find them. Eventually, they found refuge in America and resettled in New Haven, where the once successful business owner found herself rolling cigarettes for eight bucks an hour. But today, she’s built a new life and career helping other women through New Haven’s community and nonprofit Café Havenly, where she serves as co-director and chef.

“Generally, refugees only get 90 days of cash assistance,” explained Caterina Passoni, co-director of Nieda in Havenly. “So they have three months to learn English, send their children to school, get certifications, everything and find a job. And so obviously, at the end of those three months, usually people just accept survival work.

Havenly’s mission goes beyond the traditional refugee resettlement model, offering refugee women a six-month paid fellowship. Cohorts of women work at the Temple Street community cafe while taking courses ranging from finance to English to civics.

“Our mission is to build community power for immigrant and refugee women through skills training, education and organizing,” added co-director Camila Guiza-Chavez. “We work very closely with the women, one by one to think about what your long-term dream is? And we work with each woman to create a plan to get there.

Classes take place in the same space as the restaurant, where women bond over a shared experience regardless of their country of origin.

“Every woman we work with has fled violence,” Passoni explained. “Fled from trauma. They cannot return home, it is not a choice to migrate here. It’s because for some reason their country is too violent to live and survive in.

Currently, Havenly serves women from Arabic and Spanish speaking countries, with plans to expand to accommodate more languages. In the multilingual kitchen, the women overcome the language barriers between themselves with the help of recipes and gestures, a kind of cooking sign language that emerges naturally in each cohort of comrades.

Described as “traditional Arabic cuisine with a twist”, Havenly’s menu includes savory spicy biryani, fresh hummus, tender vine leaves and customers’ favorite falafel wrap. The dessert menu includes Abbas’ signature baklava, which is also available for dispatch. A vibrant and colorful design scheme is enhanced by sensory details like the smell of incense and the sound of Middle Eastern music wafting through the lunch crowd.

All proceeds from the café go towards funding the life-changing mission, but Havenly also depends on grants and private donations. In 2021, they received a $50,000 grant from NBC Connecticut and Telemundo Connecticut’s Project Innovation Initiative, awarding more than $300,000 in grants each year to nonprofit organizations tackling the issues of company in an innovative way.

“It makes a huge difference,” Passoni said. “First of all, we got it right at the height of COVID. So it was at a time when we didn’t know if we could have another cohort. Lots of people were applying, we get around 40-50 applications for just 10 places every time we open it. We are opening another cohort right now, it is not even open. And we’ve already had 45 calls. And thanks to the grant, we are really able to increase the number of women in our program.

The funding also allowed Havenly to expand its civic education offerings. The recent graduates have now formed a community organizing group, Sisters In Diaspora, which advocates for quality of life issues like affordable housing.

When it comes to being a cultural melting pot, New Haven stands out. According to Data Haven, one in six people living in the city was born outside the United States, and New Haven public school students speak more than 100 different languages ​​at home. It’s that kind of cultural diversity that makes Havenly feel at home in Elm City, but the vision for the future goes beyond that, Passoni said. They hope to start more Havenly chapters in similar cities across the country, because even after the wars are over, the struggle will continue for so many lives changed forever by conflict.

“When we see what is happening in Ukraine,” Abbas said, “and when we see what is happening in Afghanistan, our memories come back and it is constant. It doesn’t go away.

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