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Asylum Stories: In New York, Program Graduates Hope for Career in Culinary Arts; In Maine, Angolan Teen Leads Chess Team To Victory

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In New York, Vicky Espinoza is among asylum seekers now hoping for a successful future in the food service industry after completing an innovative program that teams up migrants with professional chefs “to master commercial food preparation, including baking, food service management and other necessary skills for entry-level positions at restaurants,” Rommel H. Ojeda reports at Documented. 

Espinoza, who arrived from Nicaragua through the Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans (CHNV) parole program three months ago, told Documented that she was at the library for her ESL class when she saw a pamphlet about the Careers through Culinary Arts Programs (C-CAP) training. 

The program, funded through a grant from the state’s Department of Labor, trains participants over five weeks and falls under the umbrella of a statewide initiative from Governor Kathy Hochul that seeks to address labor shortages and boost the local economy by opening more job opportunities to qualified New Yorkers and migrants. “Graduates told Documented in addition to the program’s training, the certification helps them land interviews with prospective employers.”

The training and certification have paid off for Espinoza, who has already been hired to work at a restaurant. “It is not easy because I am still learning English and the restaurant is a very fast paced environment,” she told Documented, “but I would not have had this opportunity if it wasn’t because of the program.” 

This month, others in the graduating class included Renel Joseph, who arrived from Haiti about eight months ago. He commuted more than an hour five days a week to participate in the program. Like Espinoza, he’s hopeful about his future. “When someone does not have their documents it is very difficult [to find a job],” Joseph told Documented. “But when someone has a document it is easier, and even easier if they have a certificate.” Read more here.

In Maine, another asylum seeker is looking at a bright future. 16-year-old João Vuvu-Nkanu Maviditi, who arrived from Angola a year ago, helped his school’s chess team secure an unexpected victory “in the Maine State Scholastic Chess Championship against 15 of the state’s best teams, including Kennebunk High School,” Bonnie Washuk reports at the Portland Press Herald.

The outlet reports that Portland’s Baxter Academy for Technology and Science didn’t even have a chess team until a couple of months ago. Now, it boasts a win thanks to a teen “who last year was living at the Portland Expo when it served as temporary shelter for asylum seekers.” Maviditi learned how to play chess while living at the center. But he’s far from the only inspirational story at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science.

“The team’s coach is Majur Juac, an internationally known chess master who once was one of the ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan who fled the civil war in their country and undertook long and dangerous treks to safety, spending years in refugee camps and eventually resettling in the United States,” Portland Press Herald continued. “Juac now lives in Falmouth and is on the faculty at Baxter, where he teaches chess.” Read more here.

All over Maine, asylum seekers and other migrants have been building new lives while also contributing to the local economy. At the Wild Oats Bakery in Brunswick, asylum-seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola help produce delicious goods daily. At Luke’s Lobster’s processing facility in Saco, cofounder Ben Conniff estimates that 80% of his employees are immigrants. “The guys we work with, every single day they’re going to classes, they’re learning,” he told the Portland Press Herald reported last year. “They want to be involved.”

In New York, Governor Hochul said she heard business owners clamoring for the potential unleashed by immigrant workers. However, because of the backlog at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, it can take over a year for an eligible immigrant to receive work authorization. In Congress, bipartisan lawmakers have introduced legislation that would shorten the wait to 30 days. The Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act has received the endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

Allowing migrants to work and support their families is not just a matter of dignity; it’s smart policy. Researchers “estimate $23 million in total wages and $2.6 million in state and local tax revenue is generated per 1,000 migrant workers within their first year,” the Immigration Research Initiative said. The demand is there, leaders say. “Hotel owners and restaurant owners coming to me: ‘Can you send some of the migrants up here? We need them.’ I hear this in every corner of the state,” Governor Hochul said, according to Spectrum News.