When Rafiullah Amini, who had immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan, noticed that many women within his immigrant community were confined to their homes—shocked by the culture difference and unable to speak the language of their host country—he had an idea: They could earn money cooking.
His vision was simple: to create an avenue through which immigrant women could be compensated for doing things that were already familiar to them. “I chose cooking because all women [who] come here from that region [have] a lifetime skill of cooking,” he said. “Most women have experience from age 10, so it is also their passion.”
In 2016, he and his wife, Fawzia Amini, started the Refugee Women Empowerment Catering Group in Oakland. Rafiullah deals with outreach, finding events to cater and taking orders, while Fawzia oversees the kitchen staff. The catering group is mainly staffed by refugee women, the majority of whom are from Afghanistan. It also currently has two Syrian women who are assisting with serving during events while learning traditional Afghan recipes including Kabuli Pulao (rice), Bolani (flatbread with vegetable filling) and Chicken Karahi (boneless chicken).
The group’s goal is to help strengthen the vulnerable refugee community by providing opportunities and building the women’s employment history. Rafiullah Amiri said that this kind of employment is needed to help women stay active and ultimately escape the trauma and feelings of isolation that come with migrating to a different country. Most of the women from the catering group do not have a formal education, nor can they speak English, which makes seeking fair employment opportunities extremely difficult—even impossible.
“One of the biggest problem in our community is that people often get trafficked,” he said, explaining that immigrants “work under the table” and don’t receive benefits. “They don’t even earn minimum wage,” he said. “I want to help them to earn so they can also pay taxes. That is good for your record if you choose to live in the states.”
Originally, he thought the women could cook at home. But after reading about different permits and licenses required for food service businesses, the couple realized they wouldn’t be able to have the women cook in their own kitchens. “We have to rent commercial kitchens,” Amini said, although he quickly found that the majority of the money received from orders would be needed to cover the cost of the kitchen.
In order to break even, they have to focus on larger orders. “Our minimum is $900, which can feed over 20 people and up to 50,” he said. At the end of last year, the group catered its first—and largest—corporate event when the Levi Strauss and Co. office in San Francisco hired the group to provide food for over 1,000 people at the company’s annual gathering.
The group’s preference is now to focus only on larger events. Amini said this will make it worthwhile for the women. “That really was an amazing experience for the women and for the community,” he said. He mentioned that many of the chefs were accompanied by their husbands, so it became a family affair. He suggested that, since it was the group’s first gig, perhaps the men wanted to make sure their wives were in good hands. “The biggest challenge was for families to feel comfortable allowing their wives to go work,” he said.
Now, the couple’s aspiration is to help people move away from the ideology that men must take care of everything. Amini explained that this traditional ideology is common in Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries, where the idea of an independent, working woman is rare and even frowned upon. “But this is really difficult, especially in the Bay Area, to have only one income,” said Amini. “We think [the catering company] is culturally appropriate for families, to allow the women to work and also bring some sort of income home but still feel comfortable.”
Amini said all of the women who catered the event expressed interest in returning to work again. “One of them almost made me cry,” he said. “When I gave her her [pay], she said it was the first time in her life that [she] had an earning that [she] made for [herself].”
Amini proudly mentioned that his wife, Fawzia, took the lead during the Levi’s event—and she did so at 9 months pregnant. “My experience—I love it!” she said in broken English. “It was hard for me, but it was a lot, a lot of fun for me. I was so happy to work with the refugees and get some money for them.” Fawzia said she is excited to continue to work with her husband to find catering events so she can provide more job opportunities for women.
The couple immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan in 2013 on a Special Immigrant Visa, which is awarded to foreign nationals who assist American troops abroad. As they resettled in the US with their growing family, Rafiullah Amini began to establish for himself a career in the nonprofit world—first with the Bread Project, which helps employ low-income people who face work challenges, and now with the International Rescue Committee, where he currently serves as a senior case manager.
“One of the things I see is that government non-profits cannot do this alone,” he said, referring to the complicated resettlement process for newly-arrived immigrants. “It takes the community to help and, especially after this election, there is a lot to be done.” He saw there was a need to have representation from within the immigrant population especially—“people who have been in their shoes before,” he said.
Now the couple’s goal is to make their catering company more profitable. The group is currently preparing for another large event at the end of April. In the meantime, the duo takes pride in the fact that they are also helping foster a tight-knit community among the women who cook for them. The women have become friends and are still connecting. “Every Sunday a group meets in Marina Park in San Leandro,” said Amini, smiling. “We are building this community and trying to get women out of the house.”
His wife added, “I love those women, and they are still in my life.”