Words: Katherine Michalak | Photos: Caroline Fontenot
The American Dream is alive and well behind the kitchen doors of Atlanta Chef Archna Becker's Bhojanic restaurants, where a booming refugee community has quietly thrived for nearly a decade.
New Oxford American Dictionary:
refugee |ˌrefyo͝oˈjē, ˈrefyo͝oˌjē| (noun)
a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster
ORIGIN late 17th cent.: from French réfugié ‘gone in search of refuge,’ past participle of (se) réfugier, from refuge (see refuge)
Refugee - The word itself throbs with negative connotation, harkening a sense of strife and despair, along with visions of war-torn nations, political unrest, and the proverbial huddled masses yearning to breathe free. It’s a term conjuring images of foreign lands flickering from newscasts or award-winning performances in dramatic films. I, for one, recall anecdotal tidbits of ancestral history shared at family reunions, school projects about Ellis Island, and descriptive blurbs on countless museum exhibit plaques … I identify only from distant reference, not from personal experience.
Yet, the etymology of refugee, stemming from a French gerund, echoes a sentiment far more familiar... a path we each navigate at some point in our lives . ‘Gone in search of refuge’. Seeking safety and shelter. Finding a place to rest, to breathe, to settle the soul, to nourish the body and regain balance. Hoping to find someone else at that refuge, an ally offering guidance and support to our exhausted bodies depleted by struggle.
A few years ago,
Executive Chef Archna Becker found herself struggling to staff her successful Bhojanic restaurants with capable employees. Sitting across the table from me at her Lenox location, Archna speaks quickly and definitively. Always on the move, with one hand on her phone and an ear toward the kitchen, Archna lifts up a palm gesturing emphatically, “We didn’t know what to do to get the right people in here to work. The people that were applying either didn’t have any papers or didn’t know anything about the food.” She’s committed to hiring employees with a connection to the culture of her cuisine in order to maintain authenticity. Continually packed tables at her restaurants indicate her approach hits a target.
As the business grew, Archna kept hitting these same staffing obstacles, increasingly stressed over the search for qualified workers ready for the challenge of a bustling kitchen simmering with her traditional North Indian recipes. “Then one day someone over at IRC [in Clarkston] called saying they had 2 sisters looking for jobs, all their papers processed, and they didn’t know where to start looking. I said ‘Send them over!’ That’s how we started hiring from the refugee community. I helped them, they saved me!”
About 30 years ago, the federal government tapped Clarkston, Georgia as one of the ideal spots for refugee resettlement and the DeKalb County town has played gracious host ever since. Thousands of eager families arrive in Clarkston, embracing freedom and building their future with the aid of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), designated state programming and dozens of private organizations such as the International Refugee Committee (IRC). Diversity thrives in this community devoted to new beginnings.
One of Bhojanic’s early IRC hires, Rachna, exemplifies the spirit of the resettlement program. Formerly in Nepal, Rachna lived in refugee camp awaiting international relief. Her journey brought her to Clarkston, and in 2009 she interviewed with Archna. Now, six years later, she manages the kitchen of the Lenox location while her husband manages the kitchen of Bhojanic’s Decatur restaurant. They own their home and cars, and their children flourish in local schools. They’ve each established fulfilling careers and anticipate successful futures for their family -- the American Dream in glorious technicolor.
Currently, Bhojanic employees over 2 dozen refugees, guiding them through a rigorous training process, helping them learn English and facilitating the transition into American society in a way that still allows them to celebrate their own culture. “We throw parties and organize employee events. This has become a family, our family. My husband and I recently attended an employee wedding -- a big family wedding that the whole community came together, participating. Everyone there knew us. Everyone!”
Archna views her efforts as a means of honoring her heritage and maintaining a link to tradition,
as well as celebrating America’s vast opportunities. As a young girl, she came to this country with her parents when they decided to leave India; while the circumstances of her arrival were quite different than those in an ORR program, she relates to the assimilation process. Archna encourages more business-owners to build similar relationships, “It’s definitely an investment in the training, but the risk/reward ratio of that… the ROI… makes it totally worth it. It’s incredibly rewarding. Some employees stay with us and some have moved on to open their own businesses. This community is filled with kind, family-oriented, dedicated, educated, hard-working people… This is what this country is about. If I can be a conduit for that energy, of course I will!”