For refugees and asylees fleeing their homeland, arrival in the United States is usually the end of just one phase in their journey and the beginning of another. Although far less dangerous and perhaps even less strenuous, this phase involves connecting with refugee agencies, securing employment, and assimilating into American culture. But without adequate resources, this endeavor proves exceptionally challenging for those individuals with no family ties or a lack of English speaking skills.
As depicted by Pulitzer Center-Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism student fellows Thea Piltzecker and Liz Scherffius in their film A Table for All, Emma’s Torch aims to provide that missing link. Founded by Kerry Brodie and based in Brooklyn, Emma’s Torch doubles as a restaurant and a nonprofit organization, offering temporary employment to refugees and asylees to help them develop skills necessary to build new lives in a new country. It offers a five-week culinary training program to provide hands-on experience to students in New York City’s bustling restaurant scene before shuttling them into more permanent employment elsewhere.
A Table for All features interviews with Brodie and some (current and former) employees. On January 24, 2019, the Pulitzer Center hosted a screening of the film followed by a panel with Piltzecker and Scherffius.
Most Emma’s Torch employees faced brutal circumstances in their home countries. Adwa and Latifah, two sisters from Saudi Arabia, fled the country in the face of gender-based violence and LGBTQI persecution; and Boubacar, an elementary school principal in Guinea, escaped political persecution. Their unique situations made the services they received through Emma’s Torch especially useful, but they also presented certain challenges to Piltzecker and Scherffius when producing the film.
Many employees fled illegally or without official sanction and still fear that if they publicize their stories while their present situations remain insecure, they might risk not only their residential status in the U.S., but also their lives were they to be forced back into hostile environments at home. While this certainly made selecting interview subjects more difficult for the filmmakers, it did add a particularly sensitive dimension to the project because it highlighted the ongoing difficulties these individuals face even after they have secured employment in the U.S.
When asked for their main take-away, Piltzecker said they sought to publicize the restaurant’s mission statement far outside the confines of New York City in order to “be a catalyst for discussion in communities that are not liberal or not-so-liberal.” This would, they hope, help to build broad public support for similar programs that can serve several thousand individuals, helping to fully integrate newly-settled refugees into communities and cities across the United States.