Tag Archives: International Institute of Connecticut

Ratatouille Serves Up Empowerment For Women

Four months ago, a recent Syrian refugee helped cook and serve a delicious Middle Eastern dinner in a private home.

She was eager. It was a chance to gain a foothold in a new country, one that really does offer the possibility of building a new life far from the the horrors of war.

Hong Thaimee

Hong Thaimee saw the hope in the woman’s eyes. She too is an immigrant. She came to the US from Thailand 10 years ago. Now she’s the chef/owner of Ngam in New York (with 2 more restaurants opening this year), a cookbook author, global speaker and humanitarian activist.

Thaimee is also co-founder — with Westporter Evelyn Isaia — of Ratatouille and Company. A “sophisticated catering company with a social purpose,” the intriguingly named business helps women who face difficulties and challenges become self-sufficient through hospitality.

Thaimee comes from a family of chefs. Isaia spent 30 years in wealth management.

But ever since she was a teenager, Isaia volunteered for social causes. She’s a longtime partner with Social Venture Partners Connecticut, and a board member of the Women’s Business Development Council of Connecticut.

Evelyn Isaia

Last month, Isaia retired. Thanks to meeting Thaimee 2 years ago through mutual friends, a new career — and business – was born.

Both share a passion for culinary arts, and a desire to help others “bridge the opportunity gap.”

“Women often get the short end of the stick,” Isaia explains. “They can be empowered only by knowledge.”

With her ability to organize — and Thaimee’s passion for cooking — the new business is a natural.

It gained steam even before Isaia formally retired. Last September, they organized a black-tie tasting event in Paris. Thaimee’s cooking class and book-signing — and a gala dinner — raised €80,000 for the American Church of Paris.

Three months later in Greenwich, the Women’s Business Development Council was the beneficiary of a sit-down dinner and auction.

Now, with the opening of a commercial kitchen, Ratatouille is ready to partner with other organizations, including Building One Community in Stamford and the International Institute of Connecticut. Those refugee resettlement programs provided the path for the Syrian woman to start finding her new way in America.

Ratatouille’s owners are full-service. Thaimee works with the women on cooking; Isaia teaches them to make beautiful table decorations, serve at a cocktail party or 4-course meal, and organize the flow of a gala event.

Last month’s Middle Eastern dinner — a private party — was a triumph. Miriam Fawez made the delicious food, and learned how to present it artfully. Nervous at the start, by the end of the night — after hearing diners’ compliments, and seeing their smiles — she felt confident and happy.

“Mirian just wanted a job,” Isaia says. “Now she’s got a stage.”

(From left): Hong Thaimee, Fufu Fawez, Evelyn Isaia and Miriam Fawez, with food Mirian prepared and presented for last month’s Middle Eastern dinner.

The co-founders look forward to working with other non-profits, like domestic violence centers in Bridgeport and New York.

The word will spread quickly. Ratatouille is delicious.

(For more information on Ratatouille and Company, click here.)

Building Bridges, From Staples To Syria

Kion Bruno’s mother — eye surgeon Dr.  Aryan Shayegani — is a 1st-generation Iranian American.

Neighbors on their road here in Westport include a 1st-generation Palestinian neurosurgeon, a Pakistani man, and a family that hosted Iraqi refugees.

“They’re all pillars of society,” Kion says. “And they’re all Middle Eastern.”

Kion Bruno

At Staples High School — where the 11th grader is a varsity tennis player, and founder of the squash team — he hears occasional terrorist “jokes.”

“With the current presidential administration, there’s been a definite increase in xenophobia,” Kion says. “We need to bridge the gap.”

He’s doing his part. Along with several others, Kion started a Building Bridges club at Staples. Already they’ve brought in a few speakers: Iranian American women, to talk about their lives in Iran (very similar to the US, Kion says); Palestinian neurosurgeon Dr. Khalid Abbed, who grew up very poor and whose son now goes to Staples, and Tarek Alasil, a Syrian refugee training to be an ophthalmologist.

The group also arranged a Skype call with teenagers in Iran.

Now they’re reaching out to audiences beyond Staples. On Saturday, April 1 (3 p.m., Staples auditorium), Building Bridges will sponsor a screening of “Salam Neighbor.”

It’s directed by Greens Farms Academy graduates Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple, who lived in a Syrian refugee camp. The film provides an intimate look at that horrific humanitarian crisis.

Congressman Jim Himes will be featured in the panel discussion that follows the screening, along with First Selectman Jim Marpe.

Other panelists include a Syrian refugee, being hosted in Westport; Ali Majeed, an Iraqi refugee who was hosted here and is now training to be a dentist; Claudia Connor, president and CEO of the International Institute of Connecticut resettlement program; John McGeehan of Westport Interfaith Refugee Settlement, and Megan Laney, a Westport native studying in Syria who was evacuated when the war began.

Senator Chris Murphy is sending a personalized video.

The suggested donation is $10. All proceeds benefit local and international refugee agencies and charities.

“Our community has the choice to stand by passively,” Kion says. “Or we can unite, and act to make a difference.”

He and his organization of teenagers have already built a bridge to the Middle East. Now the rest of us must cross it.

 

Paying It Forward For Refugees

Last week, “06880” told the story of Josh Kangere, a refugee from the Republic of Congo who has found work at Sugar & Olives — and the beginnings of a new life in America.

Today there’s another hopeful tale, of another Congolese immigrant here.

Three years ago, a man named David was granted refugee status. He came to Bridgeport, found work in Milford, and established himself. Last week — thanks to the International Institute of Connecticut — he was reunited with his wife Anathalie.

He also got to hold his son Christian for the first time. When David left Africa, the boy had not yet been born.

The Nestor family of Weston heard David’s story from Sue Ingall, a fellow Westonite who sets up refugee houses with volunteers from 4 area churches: Christ & Holy Trinity and the Unitarian Church, both in Westport; Norfield Congregational in Weston, and Greenfield Hill Congregational in Fairfield.

They were touched, and wanted to do something special. So Samantha, Mike, Finn and Gavin gathered furniture and children’s toys, and headed to Bridgeport on Saturday morning to meet the family.

David and Anathalie with the Nestor family.

It was a special day for everyone. Saturday was the birthday of Samantha’s grandmother Fay, after whom their son Finn is named. A refugee herself, she escaped the Russian pogroms nearly 100 years ago, with her mother and sisters.

Fay, like Christian, was separated from her father for years. She and the rest of her family journeyed to New York, where eventually they were all reunited.

They were the only members of their family to escape from Russia. Their cousins, uncles and extended family were all murdered by the Nazis.

Despite the mass executions, abductions, mutilations and rapes that are almost daily occurrences in Congo, David’s and Anathalie’s faces are filled with gratitude and hope.

And the Nestors were happy to connect their own family’s story with David’s.

(This Sunday [March 12, 3 p.m., Bessemer Center, Bridgeport] IICONN will hold a Rally for Unity and Resilience to Stand with Refugees and Immigrants. Speakers include Senator Richard Blumenthal, and Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy. Click here for information on the Facebook page.)

Finding Hope, In Sugar & Olives

In 2010, Josh Kangere fled the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo. He spent  the next 7 years in Kenya.

It took nearly all that time to be vetted as a refugee for admittance to the United States. When he finally got clearance, it was almost too late.

Josh arrived in New York moments before President Trump suspended the American refugee resettlement program. Still, he underwent hours of intense questioning before being allowed in.

international-institute-of-connecticutWith the help of the International Institute of Connecticut, and local volunteers — including many from Westport — he now lives in a Bridgeport apartment, with 3 other refugees. He pays $350 a month.

One of Josh’s first priorities —  along with learning better English, and adapting to a very different country — was finding a job. In Congo, he’d worked as a hospital nurse. Much of his work involved documenting rape cases for legal prosecution.

He did not have the language skills or accreditation to work in the medical field here. (His main languages are Swahili and French; his English is workable.)

Josh had just started his job search when the Wall Street Journal published a story about him.

Jennifer saw it. A longtime Westporter, she’d been looking for cleaning and dish-washing help at Sugar & Olives, the restaurant/bar/cooking school/event space just over the Norwalk line.

She hired him immediately.

Josh Kangere, at work.

Josh Kangere, at work.

Josh takes the bus from Bridgeport. It’s a long, unfamiliar trek, to do work that is below his skills, but he is happy to be there.

“I cannot be a man without a job,” he says. “Any job. I am ready to work.”

Jennifer — who feeds Josh dinner in part so he can save money, in part to introduce him to American food — knows she may be criticized for hiring someone who had been in this country for just a few days, instead of a local resident.

“Do you know how hard it is to find someone who cares about a job like this, and is willing to work hard?” she asks. “This is like looking for a nanny. The fit has to be right. If you don’t have a fire under your feet, you don’t belong in a restaurant. I need someone who isn’t just in this for the paycheck.”

Jennifer has welcomed Josh into the Sugar & Olives family — and her own. Her son August Laska — a Staples grad — has studied Swahili at Middlebury College. They’ve chatted a bit by phone. (Josh is also fluent in French.)

Jennifer Balin and Chris Grimm. He has helped welcome Josh Kangere to Sugar & Olives as a fellow employee.

Jennifer Balin and Chris Grimm. He has helped welcome Josh Kangere to Sugar & Olives as a fellow employee.

Jennifer believes that “the beauty of America is giving everyone an equal chance at success — and that includes immigrants. We can only learn from each other. Keeping our borders open and safe is a positive thing.”

“I’m blessed,” says Josh, who hopes to return some day to the medical field.

He says Jennifer has “a love I’ve never seen. To help people she does not know, that is special.”

Everywhere in this area, he adds, “I meet good people. They want to help me. I’m so happy with everything.

“I hope with the grace of God, in the future my life will be good. God bless the American people.”