Oats + Hope
Lives are re-made and futures re-imagined in this bustling kitchen as oats are toasted and a rich molasses slurry bubbles on the stove. Tonight's shift will end when 180 bags of granola are stickered, stuffed and sealed—ready for your enjoyment!
You have likely seen the photos of refugees walking for days with children strapped to their backs or crossing freezing waters in overcrowded inflatable rafts or waiting idly for years in overpopulated camps. Think for a moment about the conditions that would need to exist in order for you to consider fleeing your home, your country and everything you’ve known to be your BEST and SAFEST option.
With hope, refugees set out, not knowing where they are going or what lies ahead. Imagine that moment—how much fear, how much courage. They don’t know their next decade might well be spent in tent village limbo. All they know—and they all know—in order to live, they cannot stay.
Many reasons. The 'conflict' in the Congo (short for the systemized rape, brutal hunger, pervasive corruption, desperate lack of leadership and incessant violence) is considered the deadliest since World War II. Several million have fled—including Devote, who spent 17 years seeking refuge before being resettled in America.
In 2004, there were a hundred bombings in Iraq—a couple each week.Vivian survived one such blast and was rescued from beneath 12 meters of rubble. You could say she was ‘lucky’ except that she lost her husband and his entire family in that explosion. Twelve surgeries later, she still has daily migraines and double vision but no trouble using her fifth language (English) to tell us the story the joy of her recent birthday present—a job at Providence Granola.
Refugees from Somalia, like Isaac, fled religiously- and ethnically-motivated mass killings and food insecurity. He spent 19 years—nearly half his life—waiting in a refugee camp for resettlement. Today, he is making and baking artisanal granola—learning English and job skills simultaneously.
Granola-making is a beautiful and laborious process, the perfect tool to teach basic job skills AND English in an interactive, hands-on way. For Providence Granola, success is measured by deliciousness of the products and improved employability of each refugee who works with them.
Refugees don't flee their homes and all they’ve known and loved in hopes of receiving a welfare EBT card. They want to work. Many of them have already endured the very worst the world has to offer.Keith CooperFounderProvidence Granola
Most refugees arrive with no belongings or resources, minimal exposure to western culture and a traumatic personal history. Many lack an established ethnic community to help them adjust and integrate. For them, a job is a sign of arrival and belonging. A job means they can finally start supporting themselves and their families. Jobs lead to learning and cultural understanding. Jobs build confidence and improve mental health. Jobs open the door to integration.
In 2008, Keith Cooper teamed up with Geoff Gordon to start a social venture and be part of the solution. At the time, Keith was a refugee educator and granola hobbyist, while Geoff was a new entrepreneur with an MBA. “We decided on granola because it’s healthy, has decent shelf-life and requires lots of hand-labor. Plus, I’ve always felt like my recipe for it was better and healthier than anything in stores,” explains Keith. Over the years, they have created new employee-inspired granola flavors, like pistachio cardamom and mango pomegranate.
Providence Granola is an on-ramp to employment for recently arrived refugees.
To date, Providence Granola has employed 45 refugees from 11 countries. Their first employee, Evon (from Iraq), became their chef and kitchen manager. Her gracious spirit and go-getter attitude keep the kitchen on task even while each person is learning on the fly. Their second hire, Berita, a mother of nine, with no formal schooling, no English proficiency and no first-language literacy, moved on to a full-time job within just four months.
In fact, almost every person Providence Granola hired—despite daunting job-entry barriers—transitioned into the job market. As Keith and Geoff had hoped, the workplace has proven more effective than the abstract classroom as space to teach job skills. Revenue from granola sales makes training more cost-efficient, and the granola itself has attracted a cult following. It won a Best of Rhode Island award, was mentioned in the The New York Times and connected with a lot of fans who (at least initially) knew next to nothing about refugees.
Eventually, Keith and crew dream of opening an incubator kitchen to support refugee entrepreneurs (any impact investors reading this?!). Things will really get cooking when this model is replicated to provide employment for refugees and other hidden, vulnerable populations across the country.
Of course, to scale supply and create more jobs, more people need to fall in love with this amazing product. That's where we (and you) come in!
I’m looking for ways for consumers to understand that the thing they buy is so much more than the thing the buy.Keith CooperFounderProvidence Granola
From There to Here
Vivian looked for a job for two years before finding opportunity at Providence Granola. During those years, with the help of a local non-profit called Genesis Center, she began English classes and coursework to complete her GED and get her American citizenship. I say all of that matter of factly, but the truth is each of those accomplishments is made more impressive when you consider the health challenges she has had to overcome as a result of the bombing and the fact that English is her FIFTH language.
"It’s not easy to learn, no. Especially when you come old, and when you've had many issues in your country. Like how I had—I had an explosion. I lost my husband and his family. I was buried under the rubble, in the ground 12 meters. It was 2004. I was in a coma for I don’t know how long—maybe one hour, two hours—until I heard people. They were talking—it sounded like when you are swimming and they were far away. So God helped me to scream, but all the bones in my face were broken. I called to them until they heard me. Then they said don’t worry we are going to get you. They came down and took me out."
Everything was damaged and on fire and people were being killed, and you don’t know why. Even if I told you all that is happening over there, you could not imagine. It’s very painful.
Between 2004 – 2012, Vivian underwent twelve reconstructive surgeries to fix her face—six in Iraq, three in Jordan, three in the United States. Still she endures daily migraines and double vision.
Remembering those early months and years, Vivienne recalls: "In the beginning we were afraid of everything. You’re going to be in a place, but you don’t know anything about it or anyone in it. You don’t know the language and don’t know the way. We had really great volunteers helping us a lot...even now they are helping us still. They are like a brother and a sister to us. Now it’s much easier than before, like simple things: We go to the hospital by ourselves without an interpreter, we are taking the bus, we know the address and the phones. It’s very, very different."
"Some people they don’t like to hear about refugees. If I say, 'I’m a refugee.' Then maybe the person in front of me they scoff and say, 'Why are you here?' Other people are kind and sympathetic, understanding maybe what happened in my country."
Vivian is a sweet soul. After very barely surviving one of the many bombings in 2004, she and her family fled Iraq and found temporary refuge in Jordan. From there, they applied to UNHCR for refugee status and began their hoping and waiting for resettlement. America was the only country to open its doors. They were sent to Providence, Rhode Island where Dorcas International Institute was ready for them. Dorcas is one of many affiliates around the country which are responsible for providing refugees with basic services, like finding an apartment, scheduling health screenings, enrolling kids in school and adults in English courses, applying for social security cards, and finding jobs. In fact, Keith worked as a refugee educator at Dorcas before starting Providence Granola.
People just want to live simple lives: to sleep well, eat well, work well.
"I knew from working with refugees that there’s a certain number of them who never get jobs within the first year, for one reason or another. Usually it's lack of English, lack of literacy, a really narrow exposure to the world so very low cultural literacy, and then other circumstances. If we can speed that up from a year to three months then I feel like that is a huge win. Not just in terms of the money that saves the government in services, but mostly in terms of building confidence and the hope involved with that," explains Keith.
"Even being happy, you still feel something is missing. Remembering the people, what’s happened, and that there are still people that need to get help...you lose everything again. We are still sad about people, there are still many waiting on the list to come here or anywhere. We have many friends—imagine, these people they moved from Iraq to Syria. And now Syria is terrible. So they are in the middle now—they cannot go back and cannot get out."
Refugees have lost their home, have lost their country—lost the simple life. They want to do everything well here.
Talk to us about the balance between your dual missions.
Keith / If you ask our farmers’ market customers, they’d say what makes us stand out is our amazing granola. Yet, I suspect that more people in our state have heard or thought about refugees from our little product than from any other source. We intentionally make granola in the most labor-intensive way possible so as to create as many opportunities for refugees as possible.
Our project is a unique, practical and highly replicable solution to the problems of refugee resettlement and unemployment because we’re creating on-ramps into the workforce for motivated people. We believe it meets our customers’ need for engagement by offering a simple, personal way to respond to a significant global issue, and we’re motivated by the idea that a delicious and very nourishing food can help build thriving, diverse communities.
In terms of product, we have our original granola ("Keith's Originola"), and we make muesli, and then we make a different flavor of the month every month. We have about twenty recipes that we work with. We make granola bars in six flavors, and we make spiced nuts in three flavors.
What have you learned about refugees since beginning this work?
Keith / Refugees are pretty amazing. Their hospitality can be pretty mind-blowing, so much that it sometimes turns the whole sense of who is helping whom upside-down. Often, when we’re first interviewing new trainees, it’s easy to see the challenges they are up against: not speaking or reading English, poverty and learning how to live and function in a very foreign context often while trying to feed their family. All this can feel pretty overwhelming. But they work hard and learn quickly.
And another thing, refugees want to work—they want to work so badly. If you’re in a foreign country and you are simply receiving, I think that just threatens the hope of integration. It threatens confidence and sense of future confidence, and it threatens their kids' vision of, 'What is this all about? Are we here to just get these food stamps from the government?'
Though none of our trainees have even heard of granola before they start, most develop an almost immediate love for the products they’re making. Our chef, Evon, likes to tell people that we make the “most delicious granola!”
Describe the orchestrated chaos of the kitchen. What part do you most enjoy?
Keith / We’re fortunate to operate out of Amos House, located in South Providence. By day, it is the largest soup kitchen in RI, but by night, we make our granola.
The beauty of making granola is that it requires only ovens, pans, a large pot and a kettle. Because there’s almost no mechanization, refugees learn to make a high-quality, artisanal granola by hand. Every shift, dry ingredients are toasted in the ovens, and the honey and spices bubble in the pot. There’s a beautiful moment when the sugar and the honey and the oil kind of emulsify and it creates this really lovely, velvety texture in the pot—there’s just something gorgeous about it. The key is the moment they come together and are turned by hand with a long paddle in the kettle.
Not only is it a beautiful process, but it smells amazing as well. That smell is like our gift to the neighborhood—it’s a tough neighborhood, and I think people look forward to that comforting smell of something good happening in the kitchen.
Keith shares seven principles for granola-making success:
1. Pre-toast your ingredients. The “pre” here is to emphasize we’re not talking about baking. You’ll bake afterwards. First toast your ingredients. Toasting doesn’t take a lot of time and doesn't need to be done precisely. The goal is to improve and concentrate flavors and remove excess moisture. Oats, in particular, have a musty barnyard essence once they’ve sat around in a canister or bin. (Or maybe that flavor originates in a barnyard—I don’t know.) When toasted, oats turn bright, clean, and nutty. Their texture becomes pleasantly flakey. Not a single internet recipe I’ve read includes this step but it’s the single most important thing you can do if you want great granola. You heard it here first.
2. Respect the ratios. Most granola calls for a mixture of sugar, honey, and oil. We generally follow a 1:1:1 ratio. I still don’t understand the science of it, but I’ve tried a thousand variations on this ratio and always return close to it. It is as much about texture as taste. The oats absorb the stickiness of the sugar. Honey provides the strength and the shine. Oil provides body and balance (and ensures a sense of fullness so you don’t pig-out on carbs a couple hours later.) Too much honey in the ratio overwhelms the flavor and makes the oats hard to chew. Too much sugar and the coating gets grainy and your clumps may, over time, fall apart.
Boiling may not be technically necessary, but if every great recipe needs a beautiful moment, this is ours.
3. Bring it to a boil. Like most granola recipes, ours gathers the dry grains, nuts, and seeds, then mixes in a syrup of sugar, oil, honey, spices, and salt, then bakes. We bring the syrup to a boil. Doing this incorporates the oil and decreases the baking time. Just as the syrup starts to boil it transforms into a rich, velvety, fragrant, lava-like liquid. It’s gorgeous. It releases wisps of steam and the color is as extraordinary as the smell. When we’re doing this in a large pot and turn on the exhaust fan, the whole neighborhood breathes deeply. Flip off the burner off and savor the moment. It’s okay to add extracts to the liquid before boiling, but adding them at the end will result in a roiling surface and a grand exhalation of aroma.
4. Bake low. This too might be a matter of taste—but why risk burning it? In our kitchen we bake our granola for nearly an hour. It should turn golden. If you like a caramel flavor, it’s okay to let the very top of the granola darken before stirring, but please don’t burn it. If you prefer a softer granola, decrease the baking time. I test for doneness by removing a bit, pinching it together and letting it harden on a cool surface.
5. Add fruit near the end. Most granola recipes tell you to add fruit after the granola cools. I think this is a mistake. One challenge of granola is balancing the moisture with your desire for crunch. Sugars will absorb moisture from the fruit and eventually soften the granola—so we add in most types of fruit (like raisins, cranberries, mangoes, pineapple, or dates) about 10 or 15 minutes before we’re done baking. This technique can also bind some of the fruit to clusters, and protect it with a thin coat of honey. Your grain to fruit ratio will have an effect on texture. We usually aim for about 1 and ½ cups of fruit to 8 cups of grains and nuts.
6. Don't stir (or do) while it cools. If you want your granola to cluster in chunks, then let it cool without stirring. Afterwards, you can break up the pieces with your hands. If you don’t want chunks, then stir it after it comes out of the oven. We’ve developed some additional techniques for creating the boulder-size chunks we’re famous for, but this is a closely guarded trade secret.
7. Keep it cool. While granola tastes fine enough at room temperature for months, the healthy oils in seeds and nuts can be sensitive to temperature, so we encourage people to store it in the fridge. Some of our granola goes from oven to freezer on the day it was made. Definitely refrigerate the home-made stuff if you’re keeping it that long—but this is probably a moot point since what you make at home might be gone in a few hours.
Whether making your own or supporting refugees as they bake delicious, artisanal granola and courageously embark on a new life, we hope this story and the work of Providence Granola will help you see both the struggle and the hope each refugee bears and that you might consider what part you have to play in their story.
Buy granola for everyone you know! Birthday gifts, thank you gifts, thinking-of-you gifts...whatever!www.providencegranola.com/shop
I have been wanting to tell this story for years. A friend had mailed me a xerox copy of a short magazine feature sharing one Iraqi refugee's story of fleeing his homeland, arriving in America and his struggle to find work. He knew nothing about granola when he started, but (like most) quickly came to love it and take great pride in making it the best he could. Such a beautiful story of the smallest of businesses solving serious problems for the most vulnerable. And there have been many, many similar stories since then, thanks to the continued hard work and dedication of Providence Granola's board and staff.
Speaking of whom, I'd like to extend a heartfelt THANK YOU to Providence Granola and especially all those who graciously shared their stories and time with us in the writing of this feature. Keith, Anne, Evon, Vivian, Isaaq, Devote—thank you sincerely!
The only thing this granola needs is eaters. My deepest hope is that you, the reader, are inspired to try it. You will not be disappointed. Enjoy the integrity of the product and the beauty of the mission.
This is by far the easiest and most delicious way to create cycles of good, and uplifting, and hope for refugees.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly