Food Change

I t was Nieda Abbas’s home cooking, more than anything, that got Caterina Passoni through her first year at Yale. Passoni was assigned as a “cultural companion” to Abbas’s teenage daughter through a volunteer program at New Haven’s Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS). She visited the Iraqi family every Sunday to help several of Abbas’s seven children with their English and their homework. Separated from her own family in Italy, Passoni found that she, too, was in need of help.

“Food is a huge part of our culture,” Passoni says. “When I moved to the US… one of the things I missed the most was home-cooked meals and sort of sitting around the dinner table.” Soon, the Abbas family was sharing a meal with her every weekend. “They kind of became a family away from home.”

It wasn’t long before Passoni’s interests spread from helping the children to confronting Abbas’s own challenges as a newcomer to America. She had worked in her husband’s bakery, but like many other refugee women, she lacked the things she would need in order to obtain a job here: computer skills, a high school diploma, a formal record of prior employment, a car.

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Passoni didn’t have solutions to those problems. But she was volunteering on the employment team of the Yale Refugee Project, and as she and classmates Benjamin Weiss and Alessandro Luciano talked about the issues confronting women like Abbas, Weiss mentioned his experience running a pop-up restaurant on campus. “There was sort of a moment when we started thinking about food and its capacity to create social change, connection and provide a form of income,” Weiss recalls.

Passoni knew just who could help them. Today, Abbas is the head chef of Havenly Treats, a Yale-based nonprofit cofounded by Passoni, Weiss and Luciano and run by a host of Yale volunteers that sells and distributes Abbas’s scrumptious baklava, helping refugee women learn the skills they need to land food-related jobs.

On a recent Tuesday morning, The Juice Box on Chapel Street was just one of several New Haven locations displaying a tray of the Havenly Treats treats in its bakery case. Each sweet triangle of pastry ($3 each) boasted no less than two dozen flaky layers drenched in syrup and packed with nuts. In all, 16 New Haven locations, including many on the Yale campus, offer Havenly Treats baklava. Non-Yalies can find them (depending on the day and subject to availability) at places like The Juice Box, Book Trader Cafe, G Cafe Bakery and Willoughby’s Coffee & Tea or by placing a catering order through the Havenly Treats website. Order sizes begin with 18 pieces and, so far, have topped out at 500.

Students were the first to taste Abbas’s cooking in Yale’s “butteries,” late-night snack locations where Havenly Treats (then known as Snacktivism) test-drove their business model last winter and spring. Dreaming big, Abbas served up falafel, pita, hummus, kibbeh, kabobs, “a whole range of things,” Weiss says. But it was the baklava that stuck. “Nieda’s cooking capacities extend far beyond baklava,” Weiss says, “but despite that, it really was important for us to focus on one product and make sure that that was good.”

A summer grant from Yale helped the group to develop Abbas’s product and a business model. Partners IRIS and CitySeed “helped us to think really critically about how do we do this in a way that is impactful, thoughtful and appropriate given our skill set as students,” Weiss says. Abbas and some of the students participated in a fall internship at New Haven business incubator Collab, which helped them fine-tune their plan, and Passoni, now a Yale graduate, was hired on as Havenly Treats’s first executive director. She’s aided by volunteer co-executive directors Weiss and Sofia Cianchi and a large team of other students.

As head chef, Abbas not only bakes the baklava. She’s also training the first two Havenly Treats fellows—Faten Natfajl and Hala Ghali, both of Syria—in the kitchen. Volunteers with other types of expertise will teach additional employment skills, including computer literacy, financial literacy, resume building and a ServSafe certification for working in industrial kitchens. At the end of their semester-long fellowship, Natfajl and Ghali hope to gain employment at food-related businesses elsewhere in New Haven, while Havenly Treats plans to bring in a new class of fellows.

Through translator Nour Hussari, a Yale student and Havenly Treats team coordinator, Abbas says she has always received compliments on her cooking, so she had faith that Havenly Treats would work. It doesn’t hurt, she adds, that she “always has a positive outlook on life.” Fellows Natfajl and Ghali added that they were excited to get to work.

Sales of baklava bring in about $4,000 per month, Weiss says, which goes directly back to the refugee bakers. Passoni’s salary, packaging, marketing and other expenses are all covered through fundraising from individual donors and “tabling events” on campus. Students hope to raise $48,000 for the next year as they phase in a new executive director. New Haven bakeries Whole G Breads and Katalina’s donate the industrial kitchen space needed to do the baking.

Recognizing the privilege that Yale students bring to the table, Weiss says the idea is to use those advantages for good. “There’s so much purchasing power at Yale, as an institution, and so much of what we want to do is… to redirect the funding and the resources,” he says. The result is “socially minded in addition to being delicious.”

As for Abbas’s family, her daughter, Passoni’s cultural companion, is now in college herself. Passoni still visits the family often, and when she does, there’s still a home-cooked meal waiting.

Havenly Treats
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Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Join her this month on Goodreads for a guided winter reading of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.

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