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August 10, 2017

Stephen Miller and Emma’s Torch

By Rosalind Faulkner

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus’ poem “New Colossus,” famously inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, is rarely quoted in its entirety. Its last lines, though, are quoted so often that they have almost become clichéd.

Nonetheless, their enduring significance stood out last week in the White House press briefing room.

In response to a suggestion that President Trump’s newly-proposed immigration law would betray the spirit of Lazarus’ words, White House aide Stephen Miller denied their importance.

“I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty enlightening the world. It’s a symbol of American liberty lighting the world,” Miller said. “The poem that you’re referring to was added later. It’s not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”

It is true that Lazarus’ poem was an addition to the original statue. But that does not negate the longstanding American ideal captured by “New Colossus,” and the Statue of Liberty’s significance as a symbol of freedom and safety to the persecuted.

Miller’s statement, which aligns with other cringe-inducing critiques of Lazarus’ poem, drew some support. Unsurprisingly, it also drew widespread criticism, including from Lazarus’ biographer and “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver.

But a tiny café in Red Hook, Brooklyn, across the harbor from Liberty Island, makes possibly the best case against comments like Miller’s.

At Emma’s Torch Classroom Café, culinary students practice their skills every weekend. The food is delicious. The student cooks are talented and well-trained.

They are also all refugees, asylum seekers, or victims of human trafficking.

Named for Emma Lazarus, the Emma’s Torch paid apprenticeship program helps refugees, asylees, and trafficking victims gain access to often-unreachable food industry careers. Each cohort consists of two students who rack up more than 200 hours of closely-supervised culinary training and licensing over the eight-week program. Students simultaneously participate in intensive English language courses. After graduation, Emma’s Torch collaborates with New York restaurant leaders to help students find the jobs they deserve.

Founder and Executive Director Kerry Brodie explained that she was moved to take action while working for the Human Rights Campaign. She wanted to bring people together around a shared human experience to inspire empathy in the midst of the refugee crisis, and she landed on the most basic of human needs: food.

“What would it take to use that universal experience to bridge divides between cultures?” she asked.

On July 31, I had the pleasure of attending the graduation celebration for the latest Emma’s Torch cohort. The graduates were an asylum seeker from Saudi Arabia and a refugee from Nepal. They and their teacher had prepared an artful meal that boasted delicacies inspired by their home countries’ cuisines. Items on the evening’s menu included lebnah, za’atar chips, lemon hummus, falafel burgers, tahini cookies, and Nepali eggplant, to name a few.

Food.jpeg

The impressive spread celebrated the diversity that U.S. culture stands to gain from welcoming refugees. It also testified to the talent and ambition that refugees can contribute to the U.S. economy.

A year and a half after fleeing repression of women in Saudi Arabia, Emma’s Torch graduate Adwa Alsubaie is putting her ambition and training to work at The Dutch, a popular restaurant in SoHo.

Adwa’s asylum hearing has not yet been scheduled, but she’s hopeful for her future in the United States. She told me excitedly that she’s starting as prep cook and server at The Dutch, but has high aspirations. “Maybe after a year, I will be sous-chef,” Adwa said. One day, she hopes, she will open her own restaurant.

A future Emma’s Torch student who currently works at the café as the dish-washer has similar dreams. Almost one year ago, Boubacar Diallo escaped religious persecution in Guinea. After spending five months in immigration detention, he won his own asylum case without an attorney—a near-impossible feat. Now, Boubacar has set his sights on bringing his wife and daughter to the United States and eventually running his own restaurant here.

At the graduation party, Brodie expressed a sentiment that perfectly echoed what I felt while speaking with Adwa and Boubacar: “I’ve never felt more American than standing here and seeing this cultural communication.”

Stephen Miller was correct in saying that Lazarus’ poem was “added later” to the Statue of Liberty. But he failed to acknowledge that American culture is, at its heart, a beautiful mish-mash of things that were added later. For the Statue of Liberty, which has welcomed new U.S. citizens for centuries, is not just a symbol of “American liberty lighting the world,” only directing its light outward. It is a symbol of liberty that beckons the world inward, welcoming those who seek freedom.