The International Rescue Committee’s MAKE Cafe outdoor dining area in North Park will host events in September with local restaurants.
Although the state eased restrictions on in-door dining, Accursio Lota, owner and chef of Cori Trattoria in North Park, doesn’t plan to let customers sit inside the Italian restaurant just yet.
Lota says he wants to keep customers outside on the restaurant’s patio — even though it can only seat 11 tables — until he feels confident health officials won’t shut down restaurants again. It also gives employees peace of mind to work outside, he says.
“When we reopened inside at the beginning it was stressful, so we prefer to be safe,” Lota said.
The International Rescue Committee in San Diego’s social enterprise arm is opening up its courtyard, Pop on 30th, to neighborhood restaurants like Lota’s, that have limited or no outdoor seating space to help them stay in business during the pandemic.
The nonprofit’s Merging Agriculture, Kitchens and Employment Projects, called MAKE Projects, uses the space for its job training cafe during the day and restaurants will use it in the afternoon.
Before the pandemic, the POP on 30th space was used as a marketplace and cultural arts venue dedicated to events that celebrated San Diego’s refugee and immigrant communities. The pandemic put those events on hold.
The nonprofit was looking for a way to activate the space, and a partnership with local restaurants seemed like the perfect opportunity, said Anchi Mei, senior program manager with the MAKE Project.
“We were actively trying to use the space, but as we were thinking how we can monetize it in a way that it can be useful for us but also help all the restaurants that don’t have outdoor dining options,” Mei said.
The upcoming September Nights events include dinner from Cori Trattoria on Sept. 10, MAKE Cafe lunch on Sept. 12, and Tribute Pizza and the Rose Wine Bar on Sept. 12.
All the events will feature live music and require reservations on ircmake.org/pop-on-30th.
POP on 30th sits in the middle of the MAKE’s urban farm, where it runs its job readiness program, Youth FarmWorks and Cafe. Nearby is St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, where MAKE operates its job training cooking and catering program called Project CHOP.
IRC’s MAKE Projects serve refugee, immigrant and low-income residents in San Diego. The farming and cafe program is geared toward providing teens ages 16 and older with work experience and skills that can be applied in school, such as public speaking and confidence. Students earn a $300 stipend.
Project CHOP serves refugee women, mostly mothers, who want work experience while improving their English. Participants work 16 hours a week and are paid $13 to $15 an hour.
Produce from the farm is used in the cafe, which serves food prepared by the CHOP participants.
Mei said keeping the space busy with the restaurant events and cafe helps give participants real world experience in fast-paced situations, but in a setting where they can fail and turn it into a teachable moment.
“We are really trying to help people who are very vulnerable and are not necessarily ready or able to get a job right away, which is why they come to us,” Mei said. “We are an incredibly important space for showing them that they can work and building their confidence to do it.”
Roda Suleiman, a refugee from Darfur in western Sudan, is a participant in project CHOP. She arrived in the United States in 2013 with her husband and daughter and moved to City Heights last year.
Unlike some of the other participants of CHOP who have little to no work experience, Suleiman used to work as a housekeeper, at a grocery store and a factory.
But this is the first time she feels she is really enjoying the work she does, Suleiman said.
“I like my job,” she said, laughing. “I like cooking. I’m cooking everyday for my home and cooking here too. We cook different food here .... American food my boss had to teach me how to cook this kind. Now any kind of food I’m cooking.”
About 50 refugees from Somalia, South Sudan, Cambodia, Mexico, Vietnam and Syria participate in MAKE Projects. The programs were recently shortened and cut down in size to protect participants during the pandemic.
Sixteen-year-old Evelyn Arce, a native San Diegan, said she joined the program because she wanted to earn money and gain skills that will help her get a job in the future. She’s interested in pursuing a career as a dietitian, so getting work experience on the farm and learning about healthy food is helpful.
“Apart from the farm work I’ve learned how to look for jobs, create a resume and how to act in an interview,” Evelyn said. “Everyone here is really nice and helps you a lot.”
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