Partnering with Banzai Sushi: How local refugees are finding a home at a sushi manufacturer
For the past three months, Yonas Ghirmay-Negash has been waking up at 5:00am in order to catch the 124 bus from South Seattle to Banzai Sushi, a sushi production facility in Sodo. Yonas, like many Eritrean refugees, spent his professional career working in hotels and manufacturing jobs in Malta. However, when he came to America, a rare opportunity opened for sushi packagers at Banazai Sushi. Though Yonas himself would probably be the last person to envision himself working with the Japanese delicacy, since his start at Banzai Sushi, he has repeatedly been praised by his employer as a hard working and enthusiastic employee.
For people who have often times spent their adult life living in refugee camps, there are high expectations for finding work. However, once here, people soon realize that the economic climate makes finding work an uphill pursuit. In Seattle, the unemployment rate hovers at around 9%. For those looking for their first jobs and even those who have been successfully employed for years and are now looking for new careers, the prospect for jobs is bleak. While this economic context is undeniably grim for anyone looking for work, for the newly resettled refugee community of Seattle, it is in many ways much more dire. But Banzai Sushi has provided steady jobs in a recession that makes it difficult for even highly educated refugees fluent in English to get hired.
The company specializes in distributing frozen sushi throughout the United States and in fourteen countries abroad. From its start, Banzai has committed itself to maintaining a high standard of quality while promoting sushi as a healthy and affordable alternative to unhealthy meals that too often are found at schools, grocery stores and homes.
The cornerstone of Banzai is the fresh local produce and seafood that the company obtains from Seattle. Professional sushi chefs on staff oversee the daily production of sushi rolls and nigiri plates. As any sushi aficionado will tell you, perhaps the most critical component of this process is cooking the rice to a perfect fluffy consistency. Through an innovative proprietary production method, Banzai has managed to preserve these flavors and textures. In 2007, Banzai Sushi was kosher certified and began gaining attention for being recognized in various food journals as among the leading distributers of frozen sushi in the country.
Since this time, Banzai Sushi has been steadily expanding. The IRC partnered with Banzai in July 2010 and has so far placed 10 people at their facility. Some, like Yonas, work as packagers while others with cooking experience work at one of many rice cookers. Yonas, who is originally from Eritrea, has never seen or heard of sushi prior to working at Banzai. This is true of all of the 10 workers currently employed at Banzai. Yet, their inexperience cooking and eating sushi does not detract from their work ethic and desire to learn. Yonas and the other 10 workers share a dedication to succeed and learn and a commitment to persevere through any challenge - qualities that employers who have worked with IRC clients from across Seattle consistently say make these employees stand out.
Refugees come to America from different countries, each with different experiences, different barriers to finding work and different expectations on how their lives will unfold. However, for now, at least 10 people have found a home at Banzai Sushi.
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