Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning opened The Spring Café in December of 2015 with a tremendous sense of promise and purpose. Sure, we wanted to serve coffee and snacks and offer a pleasant, convenient space for Denver’s Capitol Hill residents, tourists, and workers to gather. More importantly, though, we were on a mission to provide on-the-job training for immigrants and refugees, helping them get their foot in the door in the customer service industry and beyond. Often in their very first jobs in the United States, café employees would earn a paycheck while practicing their English, mastering marketable skills, and figuring out a new culture. At the same time, patrons would meet and learn from their international, newcomer neighbors — a perfect recipe for community fellowship and successful integration.
The café’s mission derived from a basic ideal: By welcoming refugees and immigrants with open arms, communities such as Denver become stronger, richer, and more culturally colorful. In addition to complementing Spring Institute’s broader work of empowering people and organizations to succeed across languages and cultures through an array of intercultural learning programs and services, the café’s founding purpose was grounded in fundamental American ideals. After all, the United States has a longstanding, bipartisan history of welcoming immigrants and refugees to the mutual benefit of newcomers and pre-existing populations. So why, earlier this month, were we forced to permanently close the doors of The Spring Café, our mission derailed after only a few years?
It must be said that during its four years of operation, The Spring Café was successful by many measures. It quickly became a popular eatery and meeting spot for local residents, visitors, and especially those doing business in the Colorado State Capitol and surrounding office complexes. On top of serving at least 60,000 cups of coffee and hosting dozens of community events, the café trained more than 20 immigrants and refugees from diverse countries including Afghanistan, Belarus, Burma, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Vietnam. All improved their English and other job skills and the vast majority went on to obtain other employment or enroll in additional education. Inna from Belarus, for example, thrived as a barista and is now a full-time nursing student and aspiring midwife. Shuruk from Iraq gained food preparation and catering expertise while perfecting her own delicious recipes. Abang from Ethiopia is now applying customer service skills to her small jewelry business. And the list goes on.
These success stories make it all the more heartbreaking that, despite our best recruitment efforts, skillful management, and the obvious popularity of the cafe, sharp decreases in refugee arrivals under the current presidential administration made it virtually impossible to hire new staff in keeping with the cafe’s mission. In each successive year of the Trump Administration, the Presidential Determination, or cap, on refugee admissions to the United States has been progressively lowered, level by unprecedented level. The admission limit for the 2020 fiscal year is only 18,000 refugees, less than a quarter of the number actually resettled in the final year of the Obama administration. Since 2016, the number of refugee arrivals here in Colorado has dropped by 67%. So, in 2019, we were unable to hire even a single refugee barista for The Spring Café, leading us to the difficult decision to redirect resources to the many other programs and services that Spring Institute provides.
We’re so proud of the many immigrants and refugees who’ve used their experience at The Spring Café as a springboard to careers or further education and we’ll sorely miss the sense of community the café brought us — not to mention the great coffee, delicious food, and convenient meeting space. In the aftermath of its closure, the café’s mission becomes an enduring legacy to be understood not just as an unfortunate ending, but as an urgent call to awareness and action: Denverites, Coloradans, and Americans largely welcome refugees as a valued, integral part of our vibrant social fabric and shared prosperity. Their presence benefits us all and slamming the door on them is not only disgraceful and counterproductive, it flies in the face of our core humanitarian, diplomatic, and patriotic ideals of embracing victims of global displacement.
It’s up to us all to condemn the continued dismantling of our nation’s refugee resettlement program, urge our elected officials and other leaders to resist and reverse this appalling trend, and to keep opening our arms — and our neighborhoods — to newcomers from across the globe seeking refuge from violence and hardship.
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