Refugees Resettled In Chicago Help Make Its Most Famous Cheesecake : The Salt Refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Asia are a sought-after talent pool at Eli's Cheesecake in Chicago, where they manage the complex assembly line and rise through the ranks.
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Refugees Resettled In Chicago Help Make Its Most Famous Cheesecake

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Refugees Resettled In Chicago Help Make Its Most Famous Cheesecake

Refugees Resettled In Chicago Help Make Its Most Famous Cheesecake

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On this program, we have been talking about the refugee crisis. It is the largest displacement of people since World War II. This year, the United States took in more than 85,000 refugees. Voluntary agencies have been helping to resettle them, and private companies have been employing refugees.

We're going to talk about that side of the story with NPR's Deborah Amos, who has been reporting on resettlement in the United States. Deb, good morning.


GREENE: So I know you've been following this story around the country in different places, but in the city of Chicago, you're looking at some companies who have been hiring refugees. Who are these companies?

AMOS: In Chicago, it's Tyson's Food, Scrub, a company that runs a cleaning service - also some of the biggest hotel chains in Chicago, even Trump International Hotel. These jobs are important to newcomers because the U.S. Resettlement Program requires them to find employment quickly because their benefits run out within months.

GREENE: OK, so it's a process that happens pretty quickly. And, Deb, you visited a factory that makes cheesecake in Chicago. This is not a Cheesecake Factory restaurant, this is something else.

AMOS: Yes, it's Chicago's largest cheesecake company, and at times they've had dozens of refugees on the line. And here's their story.

You have to dress up to see how Eli's Cheesecake is made like a scientist - white coat, covered shoes and hair. A hand wash is a must before stepping onto the high-tech factory floor. These famous cheesecakes are shipped across the country and around the world.

How many cheesecakes do you make every day?

MARK SCHULMAN: You know, I think in a day we could make like 300,000 portions, so it's a lot of products.

AMOS: That's Mark Shulman, president of Eli's. He says he still uses his father's simple recipe, but now the mixing and baking is all high-tech so the 220 employees have to be highly skilled. He recruits about 15 percent of his workers from refugees resettled in Chicago, those with college degrees and technical backgrounds.

SCHULMAN: When you look at a refugee coming, it is - it isn't what that person is on the day they arrive, it's what they can become.

AMOS: One example is Elias Kasongo, who arrived at the bakery in 1994. Like every refugee here, he was fleeing a war zone. For him, it was the Democratic Republic of Congo.

ELIAS KASONGO: I've been here at Eli's for the past 22 years. This is my home, yeah. It's a beautiful thing.

AMOS: Kasongo went from the dish room to the executive suites. Now he's Eli's purchasing manager, pricing Madagascar vanilla and organic cream cheese. He also serves on the board of RefugeeOne, a Chicago nonprofit that helps refugees start new lives. When I look at the list of some of the employees and their home countries, they come from the world's toughest conflicts.

So we've got Iraq, Iraq, Bhutan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Congo, Burma - that's a lot.

KASONGO: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah.

SCHULMAN: These are great performers, great people.

AMOS: Here on the factory floor, the mixing bowls are as big as bathtubs. A two-story conveyor belt delivers cooled cakes, thousands a day ready for toppings and boxes. To make sure the production runs on time, there's a production leader - Zemira - from Bosnia.

What's your last name?


AMOS: Did you come as a refugee?


AMOS: She's a manager now, but that's not where she started. She was hired because of her technical background, but didn't speak much English.

BAJREKTAREVIC: When I first came I work in cleaning in the office. After six months. I came here.

AMOS: As her language improved, she was promoted. A common story here, says Shulman. Refugees tend to make long-term commitments to work at a time when there's a talent shortage for high-tech jobs.

SCHULMAN: The change in jobs in our industry are they're more technical. People who come as refugees have great skills.

AMOS: And are highly motivated, he says. A refugee has to be motivated just to get to the U.S. It can take years of interviews and security screenings. Then there are the hurdles of a new country, a new language and culture. It's hard work, but it paid off for Ray Hermez. He was resettled in Chicago five years ago.

RAY HERMEZ: I'm - come from Iraq.

AMOS: You came as a refugee?

HERMEZ: Yeah. I came as a refugee, but now I'm a citizen. I got my citizen like in January this year.

AMOS: It's not charity, says Schulman. It's good business.

SCHULMAN: We have the success stories. I mean, we've celebrated citizenship ceremonies with a number of our associates. We've seen individuals have children, you know, buy homes and saying, hey, you know, who's the American here?

AMOS: The hiring strategy at Eli's is used at other well-known American companies - Marriott International, Wells Fargo, Western Union, says Kathleen Newland at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

KATHLEEN NEWLAND: Employers who have awakened to the potential of refugees have been very satisfied with their experiences. You know, they find that they're hardworking, that they're loyal, tend to stay in the job longer. It's a win-win.

AMOS: This is the dish room, where the cake pans are hand scrubbed. It's where Elias Kosanga started more than 20 years ago. He turned a chance into a career.

KASONGO: Just imagine if I didn't have the job. What would I be, a homeless somewhere? So it takes someone to take a chance on you and say, hey, let's see if he has a talent. It takes the talent.

GREENE: All right, listening there to my colleague Deborah Amos who's still on the line. And, Deb, important to remember probably numbers wise, tens of millions of people displaced over the past few years. This is just one factory in one city.

AMOS: It's true. But little by little, more Fortune 500 companies are starting to recruit refugees. One example is Oliver Wyman, a global consulting firm, recruited five refugees for the first time this year. Listen to John Romeo. He runs the North American division. And he says hiring refugees is a diversity hire. Here's what he said.

JOHN ROMEO: Many refugees have shown a determination, a perseverance that is so critical to being successful in your career. We'd love to hire more including in the U.S.

GREENE: He said diversity hiring. We're talking about, like, religion, race, ethnicity, or what?

AMOS: You know, that's what I thought when he first said it, but no, he means something different. He means that the experience of being a refugee, crossing a border, thinking on your feet, surviving are all the things that make a good employee, a successful employee.

GREENE: Oh, I see, that's the diverse experience that he's talking about, which makes them different.

AMOS: Exactly.

GREENE: OK. That's NPR's Deborah Amos. Deb, thanks as always.

AMOS: Thank you.


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