When she thinks about the changes the last year has brought, Kerry Brodie can't help but laugh. "The last year of my life has been intense. I consider myself exceptionally lucky."
Brodie runs Emma's Torch, a restaurant and nonprofit that offers culinary training to refugees, asylees, and human trafficking survivors. The restaurant opened a little over a year ago at its first location in a Red Hook, Brooklyn, pop-up.
The idea of opening a restaurant for refugees and asylees first came to Brodie while she was working in international development. Brodie wanted to provide hands-on experience and teach skills in demand for the restaurant industry. Students participating in the 5-week Emma's Torch program are set up for success for employment in restaurants across New York City.
"I think Emma's Torch helped me find my place and helped me find my purpose. I think I'm learning more and more everyday," said Brodie.
Serving "New American cuisine—prepared by [new] American students," Emma's Torch students bring their own culinary traditions to cooking classes. The dinner and brunch menus feature American classics like buttermilk pancakes and herb roasted chicken, but foods like shakshuka also make an appearance.
Fittingly, the restaurant takes its name from Emma Lazarus, the author of the poem "The New Colossus." Brodie sees that inspiration as integral to the restaurant's mission. "We are the Mother of Exiles, the place where people come for refuge," she says. "It's about who we are as Americans."
In May 2018, the restaurant opened its doors in a new location, in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens neighborhood.
The same week, A Table for All, our documentary about Emma's Torch, had its festival premiere at the New York City Independent Film Festival. The film received essential funding and support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
We caught up with Brodie as she prepared for the restaurant's opening weekend, and briefed us on the events of the last year.
"I take a lot of pride in our students. I feel so lucky to have met them. But I also love seeing them grow and seeing what they do next," said Brodie. "And I'm just continuously inspired by them." She is thrilled about the restaurant expansion, which will allow her to increase the number of students the program can support.
Our film featured some of the first students at Emma's Torch, who have since graduated and begun their new lives in earnest.
Sisters Adwa and Latifah fled gender-based family violence and LGBTQI persecution in Saudi Arabia. They pled asylum when they arrived at New York's JFK Airport and were connected to resettlement agencies.
Adwa is currently working at The Dutch, and moved from prep cook to oyster bar chef in a matter of a year. On the future, Adwa says, "I see myself in five years continuing my school and profession in kitchen work, and hope to [run] my own business."
While in New York, her sister, Latifah, worked at Brooklyn Grange Farm through the Refugee and Immigrant Fund, which supports asylum seekers in the five boroughs. She moved to Europe in October 2018 to live with her partner and continue her studies to become an English-language translator.
Boubacar, an elementary school principal in Guinea, fled political persecution in his native country. With his life at risk, he was forced to leave his wife and 5-year-old daughter behind. Boubacar learned English while in the Emma's Torch kitchen, and reinvented his professional life to become a certified chef. Boubacar is now working in Manhattan's Little Park kitchen and has filed a family reunification application. He remains hopeful that his family will be able to join him in New York soon.
For her part, Brodie wishes she could smooth the paths of all her students, even after they leave the training program. But she says, "I don't have a magic wand. I can't reunify families. I can't ensure that everything will be rosy. But in my mind I'm hopeful that I'm one of those friends that they can count on here in the U.S., and I don't want to fail them."
Each month since May, Emma's Torch has graduated a new class of students. These newly trained chefs come from all over the world and are united in their hopes of a better American future.