As the nation continues to debate immigration policy, one restaurant in Troy, New York is hoping to create a safe space for immigrants and refugees.
Sunhee Farm and Kitchen opened in 2015 on Ferry Street in downtown Troy. Owner Jinah Kim says she saw untapped potential while working with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in nearby Albany. She wanted to help refugees and immigrants who were trying to find work, and utilize their skills to strengthen the Capital Region community.
“Even when it comes to economic development I think immigrants and refugees are really [a] key part of growing our cities. So here we are Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen. We host our English classes and also look to hire from [the] refugee population and also immigrants,” says Kim.
Kim says classes began with one student and have grown to about 10. She believes learning English is one of the biggest barriers to professional success in America.
“Also just a feeling like a sense of belonging to a new community. For about six months we didn’t even have classes, but further into the business we felt that it was just so important. We actually did it simultaneously while our restaurant was open and later on we had decided to even close the restaurant from 3-4:30 every afternoon Monday-Thursday in order for all staff to have the opportunity to attend,” says Kim.
Sunhee Managing Partner Grace Lee taught high school in Atlanta before moving to Troy. Lee teaches the English classes.
“Our English class has grown in the past couple months and it’s a lot other students recruiting friends or other neighbors or other students from other English classes they attend and they bring them here. I think that’s a testament to how much they enjoy the class and the fact that they feel a sense of community and it’s almost become a family,” says Lee.
Rebecca Sam is an immigrant from Ghana who works at Sunhee and attends English classes.
“I love to learn a lot of English, to know how to speak well, to write well and to read well. I like the restaurant here and to work here too,” says Sam.
A native of South Korea, Kim immigrated to the U.S. when she was 3 and is a green card holder. The 27-year-old says everyone she hires has legal refugee status and is authorized to work in the U.S. She believes there is a general fear that immigrants and so-called Dreamers – people who were brought to the United States by their parents when they were young – are not welcome in the community.
“We’re all about our immigrant stories [and] our personal stories, because who can argue our stories right. So we need to especially as immigrant Americans and those who have the privilege and freedom to share our stories to stand up and have that positive messaging,” says Kim.
New York Congressman Paul Tonko, a Democrat from the 20th District, visited Sunhee in March as part of a workforce tour and praised Kim’s work. Tonko recently spoke with WAMC’s Alan Chartock on the Congressional Corner about people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“Fact of the matter is, they cannot draw down on Medicaid, they cannot draw down on food stamps [and] they cannot draw down on federal assistance for higher education. They do pay Medicare taxes and they do pay Social Security, so they really give,” says Tonko.
Rensselaer County Sheriff Patrick Russo has made national headlines for his cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 287g program. Under the program, two corrections officers in the sheriff's department have the authority to question suspects about their immigration status and detain them, if appropriate.
Responding to a request for comment Russo says, “The program does not affect law abiding immigrants.”
Some county residents have criticized Russo, claiming there should have been more public discussion before the department agreed to participate in the program.
Kim says by cooperating with ICE, the Republican sheriff is reinforcing fear among the immigrant, refugee and DACA populations.
“If we take the time to understand things on a case by case basis and learn people’s stories, I think that will radically change our perspectives,” says Kim.
Back at Sunhee Farm and Kitchen, the focus remains on food and community.