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It’s a Beautiful Day for Refugees

Where does most granola begin? Probably in a factory, or maybe a sticky bowl at home during an oatmeal cookie project gone wrong.

At Beautiful Day, a nonprofit gourmet granola powerhouse in Rhode Island, the answer may surprise you – a classroom.

In 2008, Keith Cooper was an educator struggling to meet the learning needs of his refugee students. The decontextualized atmosphere of the western classroom – desks and chairs arranged in neat rows – wasn’t conducive to learning for kids who had just arrived from camps.

Since most people learn by doing, Keith decided that one of his personal hobbies might be a perfect hands-on project. So he got together with his friend Geoff Gordon and started teaching his students how to make granola.

English improved. Morale improved. Students found something that bound them together and gave them purpose – and Keith saw a chance to make it all sustainable.

Honoring Work & Roots

Fast-forward a dozen years, and Beautiful Day is a thriving nonprofit with a mission “to help refugees, especially youth and the most vulnerable, to enter the job market and become welcomed, self-sufficient members of our community.”

Unlike other refugee organizations that depend exclusively on grants and fundraising, Beautiful Day looks to product sales for nearly one-third of its revenue. Or, to put it another way: “We sold over nine tons of granola last year,” says Rebecca Garland, director of strategic partnerships at Beautiful Day.

At the Beautiful Day web store, you can get your hands on unique flavors of granola bars, chunks, and muesli in individual packages or elaborate gift sets. Mochaccino Hazelnut or Salted Mango, anyone?

The company also started selling freshly roasted specialty coffee two years ago. “We source from countries our trainees come from – Ethiopia, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” says Rebecca.

These countries produce some of the highest quality coffee on earth. “We want to honor that.”

This idea of honor and dignity through work is what Beautiful Day seeks to make tangible for people displaced by uninhabitable circumstances in their home countries.

Many on the organizational team are educators who quickly discovered that confidence and self-respect were basic unmet needs in the refugee community.

“It’s hard to concentrate on learning English when you’re demoralized and worried about bills,” says Rebecca, whose focus is human development and psychology and the effects of trauma on learning in women.

Beautiful Day runs two 300-hour work training programs – one for adults, and one for high school aged youth. The trainees receive a minimum wage of $10.50 an hour, are eligible for bonuses, and typically finish within a year.

“They have other jobs and commitments,” Rebecca says, so the programs are flexible to accommodate school and other opportunities. Last year, the organization logged 5,177 hours of training, creating a positive change for 22 refugees and 104 family members.

The model has proven effective: 70% of Beautiful Day’s trainees have jobs upon leaving the program, with many staying on to support the growing business.

Searching for Stability

Resettlement agencies and grassroots service organizations refer individuals to Beautiful Day because of the organization’s success in helping refugees overcome serious employment barriers.

“Often those who arrive are not literate in their own language, let alone English, and have no known transferable skills,” Rebecca says.

Many have spent entire lifetimes in camps or in transit. “Somebody may have been born in the DR of Congo to Burundian parents who speak Kirundi, but then taken to Tanzania.”

In the dizzying search for identity and community, granola is a stabilizer.

“You don’t have to speak a language to show someone how to make it,” says Rebecca. “There are lots of steps and it provides opportunities for interaction.”

These moments together have helped suffering souls with far-flung stories and dreams find peace and understanding in one another while developing a sense of purpose.

“We have people who were doctors and lawyers at home working alongside subsistence farmers,” says Rebecca. Before they started smushing granola together, their only common experience was unspoken trauma.

While Beautiful Day doesn’t have a formal education program for adults, the organization helps them create resumes and coaches them through the employment process.

A youth program launched in 2019 is more curricular with three hours a week in class and an eight-hour practical work component.

“We teach them job readiness skills and the unspoken rules of American work culture,” says Rebecca. Things like how to call in sick, talk to a manager, and make eye contact.

Having arrived in the US at a more malleable age, the younger trainees have a better handle on English and, with help from Beautiful Day, learn to navigate the complex service economy quickly.

Beautiful Day transports the kids everywhere from street festivals and holiday bazaars to grocery stores on demo days where they talk to customers about their products.

“We recently took them to a Run for Refugees event with over 5000 attendees,” adds Rebecca. “They got to hand the runners bars and thank them for their support.”

Moving Beyond Myths

But education doesn’t begin and end with trainees. It extends to the broader population, as well, with the goal of dispelling myths about refugees and building more welcoming communities.

“People confuse refugees with immigrants or asylum seekers,” says Rebecca, but in fact the process for gaining entry to the US is far different. Since the Reagan administration, every president has set affirmative targets for taking in a tiny portion of the world’s 80 million refugees displaced by war, famine, and natural disaster.

For the lucky few whose applications are successful – current US targets are just 9,000 a year – there’s still a two-year vetting period by the State Department. After such a long and arduous application process, as Rebecca puts it, “There is no such thing as an illegal refugee.”

To make this all more real and relatable, Beautiful Day’s community education efforts include kitchen tours, refugee sponsorship programs, and speaking engagements called Journeys of Hope where community members can hear individuals’ stories.

“Vivian, one of our trainees from Iraq, lost her whole family in a blast and was miraculously pulled from under 20 feet of rubble,” shares Rebecca.

In need of major reconstructive surgery, Vivian’s refugee status was expedited.  “Now she is our administrative assistant and just had a baby boy in September.”

With growing advocacy and support from the community, the team has their eyes on the horizon and hopes to provide more comprehensive case management services in the future.

“We are one link in the chain,” says Rebecca. One link, and countless delicious morsels.

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