Partnership provides help, hope to refugees

February 12, 2015


When John Wani arrived in Denver in September 2014, he was immediately inspired by the sights of the mountains and the possibilities that awaited him.

“The first time we arrived at the airport, I began to see new things,” said the 30-year-old from South Sudan.

Wani and his family fled violence and war in their home country after living in a Sudanese refugee camp for 12 years. Now, he’s living in Denver and already working towards a new life and a new career.

Wani is part of the African Community Center’s Commercial Food and Safety Service Training Program. The program trains refugees with the culinary skills they need to work in restaurants and hotel food programs. But, up until 2012, the ACC didn’t have a true professional space to let participants practice those skills.

That’s when Fritz Knobel School of Hospitality Management Associate Professor Dr. Cheri Young had an idea. The professor was teaching a course focusing on human resources skills to University of Denver students in the Hospitality Management program. Young wanted to take the course a step farther and show students how to foster relationships with hospitality industry workers and recognize talented employees.

“I can have my students partner with them, be a mentor, and practice those skills,” she said.

The program, though, quickly fostered friendships between University of Denver students and refugees from around the world.

“I found that my students were learning so much from the refugees they were working with in terms of what it takes to be resilient, to have hope, to have optimism,” said Young.

The Worldwide Hospitality Awards took notice, naming the program the “Best Educational Innovation.” Young says officials with the U.S. State Department have also studied the program with the goal of possibly replicating it in other cities.

Many of the trainees in the program will get a chance to practice their skills at the Fritz Knobel School Public Good Gala, on Feb. 19. In 2014, 100 percent of the refugees who participated in the program were able to get jobs in the food service industry. The partnership has resulted in a placement rate of nearly 80 percent for refugees who train in the program, in general. Young says the culinary training can lead to growing careers for refugees even if they speak a limited amount of English.

“You also want to think about what are the career paths for people so they don’t get stuck in the same job,” she said. “You can work your way to the top and become an executive chef.”

Wani is already dreaming of a brighter future. He believes it begins with the training he’s receiving now.

“It is good to start a good foundation,” he said. “Whenever you start a good foundation, I see in this country, you will live a good life.”

For more information on the upcoming Gala for Public Good, click here: