By Joce Blake
Picture a kitchen full of refugees working on lifelong, empowering skills—that kitchen is Comal Heritage Food Incubator in Denver’s TAXI development, located in the River North neighborhood. These young women are not just refugees but are also bright, intelligent entrepreneurs determined to change the world. Initially, the space was used to provide Hispanic women with job and language skills; it is now a safe place for Syrian women, as well. In the eyes of these strong women, intense ambition is their only choice, leaving behind a bomb-ridden home in pursuit of their goals and dreams.
We had the opportunity to have a conversation with Slavica Park, Director of Economic and Workforce Development at Focus Points Family Resource Center. Park was also once a refugee, so she understands the feeling of the unknown, and that understanding fuels her passion to pay it forward. Focus Points is responsible for the program at Comal, and it is more than deserving of the spotlight. We also spoke with one of the refugees, Sara Nassar, to see how this program is truly affecting lives.
WOD: What is Focus Points Family Resource Center?
Park: Focus Points Family Resource Center is a Denver nonprofit organization whose mission is to build better communities by strengthening families. Focus Points achieves that by providing programming in the following areas:
School Readiness, Adult Education, Economic and Workforce Development, Health and Wellness, and Community Engagement.
WOD: How did you get involved in the Focus Points Family Resource Center?
Park: I started working at Focus Points in May of 2016 as their Director of Economic and Workforce Development. I was very drawn to the mission of the organization and excited for an opportunity to re-engage in community work.
WOD: What is the importance of the community outreach program?
Park: Community outreach is important because it gives organizations a pulse on the community they are serving. If community outreach is not properly conducted, organizations are often unaware of what the community truly needs and how to best serve its members.
WOD: What are five things you want the world to know about the community outreach program?
Park: The Focus Points community outreach program helps ensure the following:
WOD: Where do you see the program in 10 years?
Park: I would love to see our graduates realize their dreams of launching their food-related businesses. Additionally, I would love for Comal to grow and become a true cultural center that bridges the cultural gaps in the city by engaging all communities in a conversation around food. I believe that our misunderstandings stem from simply not knowing other cultures that make up the fabric of our city.
WOD: Why did you choose Comal Restaurant as the spot to start this creative kitchen?
Park: I think Comal chose me! When I first started working at Focus Points, I met a group of community members who were interested in starting food-related businesses like catering, small restaurants, and food trucks. They had talent and passion; the only thing missing was the commercial kitchen. It was at that time I learned that Zeppelin Development had a vacant kitchen space that they wanted to use for social purposes. After meeting and planning for three months, Comal opened in October of 2016!
WOD: How did you come up with the idea to teach classes to the community spanning from cooking to culture?
Park: It was what the community asked for. Cross-cultural interactions are something I am truly passionate about. I have lived in three different countries, and learned that integration is a difficult process. One must have an international mindset in order to create spaces and opportunities for integration to occur. We have so much to learn from each other in order to help us grow.
WOD: Why do you think the program is essential to women?
Park: In addition to providing women with an immediate earning potential (50% of our revenue goes directly to women in the program), the experience gained sets them on a trajectory to successfully own their small businesses. Entrepreneurs in Comal are able to test out recipes, marketing strategies, and management styles. They build confidence and experience, all while having the opportunity to share their culture and their families’ recipes.
WOD: Why Hispanic and Syrian women?
Park: Focus Points predominately serves a Hispanic population, and therefore our first cohort was very representative of our community. As our operations got settled in the first few months, we realized we had the capacity to take on another day of lunch service, and decided to extend out to the refugee community. We focused specifically on Syrian women because of the current political climate. We wanted to show them that they are welcome here, and since their first day in Comal, our customers have been huge fans!
WOD: How did you meet Sara Nassar?
Park: I met Sara through Colorado Refugee Network Services. I reached out and asked them if they had any newly-arrived refugees who had a passion for cooking and wanted to be a part of our program. The very next week Sara and her friend Waala came to Comal and brought some delicious, authentic Syrian food for us to try. Their food was fantastic, and so were they. I am so impressed with the level of compassion, resilience, and drive that Sara has! I know she will be successful, no matter what she chooses to do!
WOD: How has working and learning at Comal restaurant affected your life?Nassar: Working at Comal makes me feel welcome in Denver, and helped me to learn more about the people here. Comal is such an amazing program—I love everything about it, from learning how to cook and serve in a restaurant, to meeting nice people. It's hard to pick my favorite part, but if I have to it will be the happy feeling I have when I see the joy on the people’s faces while eating what we are cooking. I am happy because they come every Friday. I am happy because we made something that makes other people feel good.
WOD: What would you like people to know about your life as a refugee?
Nassar: As a refugee, I have been in hardship, but achieving my goal by coming to a safe place and being here in Denver is priceless. I thank the god of the universe every single day. This taught me that everything is possible, and life has so much more to give than we'll ever know. I will work so hard, so no one will ever lose hope.
WOD: How has moving to Denver affected your growth and passion?
Nassar: The first thing I noticed when I was at the Denver airport was the sky—so big, so close, so beautiful. This city just gave me peace and hope. I am so excited to wake up every morning to continue living life again. I thought it was just because it's a new place, but no, it's real. I have been here for 8 months and I am not just feeling the same, but I am feeling better every single day !
WOD: What makes you feel empowered as a woman?
Nassar: What makes me feel empowered as a woman is having equal opportunities, and not being judged,stereotyped, or being treated as a human and nothing else.