Gourmet Kreyól wasn’t built for a refugee crisis.
Until recently, Nathalie Lecorps’ Haitian food operation was a small, and relatively new, affair: A popular food truck, a thriving catering business, and five employees, all working out of Commonwealth Kitchen, the visionary restaurant incubator and communal cooking space in Dorchester.
Now, in addition to all of that, Gourmet Kreyól is working beside the state, the city of Boston, and a mass of community organizations to respond to a flood of mostly Haitian immigrants fleeing their broken Caribbean country, as well as hostile American states.
The influx has been overwhelming, as has the generosity of the response. Dr Geralde Gabeau, at the Immigrant Family Services Institute, a Mattapan nonprofit that serves mostly Haitians, estimates that 2,000 new arrivals come through her doors each month. They’re fleeing a collapsed economy and gang violence in Haiti, poor conditions in Brazil and Chile, where some of them first settled after escaping, and unwelcoming environments in states like Florida and Texas, where governors have made political capital out of cruelty to new arrivals. They have taken treacherous journeys over the Darién Gap and up through Central America, fallen prey to gangs and ruthless smugglers, lost loved ones and all of their belongings along the way, she said. Others have been sponsored by relatives, and make beelines for Boston, which has one of the country’s biggest Haitian communities.
“By the time they get here, they are empty-handed, with nothing except the documents they received at the border,” Gabeau said.
They turned up at Boston Medical Center until that was no longer possible, then at a new Family Welcome Center in Allston. The state, assisted by cities, nonprofits, churches, and volunteers, have been moving them into hotels all over Greater Boston, until they can find proper shelter for them — and until the immigrants’ work visas come through, so they can begin to support themselves.
Many of the immigrants feel traumatized, and adrift. When you’re this unmoored, food says home. And so those coordinating their care at the state and in Boston City Hall reached out to Lecorps and others — local chefs who know how to make authentic Haitian food.
Now the restaurateurs are delivering hundreds of meals each day to refugees in hotels in Dedham, Quincy, Everett, Watertown, Boston, and elsewhere.
“I had never done this,” Lecorps said. “But when I learned it was for people from my country, I had to figure out a way to make it happen.”
On a recent sweltering afternoon, her section of the community kitchen was jammed with workers preparing roasted pork shoulder and chicken, fried green plantains, salad, and pikliz, a spicy cabbage slaw, for that night’s dinner. Giant vats of black beans for the next day steamed on a counter. For Sundays, she prepares a dish called Freedom Soup — soup joumou — with squash, beef, tomatoes, pasta, and scotch bonnet peppers, traditionally eaten to celebrate Haiti’s independence from French colonial rule and the end of slavery in 1804.
Lecorps has put on five more workers to handle the extra cooking, and the delivery of more than 200 meals per day to hotels in Dedham and Quincy. She’s ordering triple the ingredients she was before, and working from 4:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. many days. She’s exhausted, but she’s grateful to step up. Lecorps, 41, grew up in Miami, where her parents settled and opened a restaurant after they left Haiti. She has been following the heartbreaking disintegration of their country closely.
“If Haiti was a place where they were not fearing for their lives every single day, they would not make this effort to come to this country,” she said.
Deliveries are joyous affairs, with residents delighted at Lecorps’ food, and her fluency in Creole. But they are daunting, too. It’s hard to see proud families crammed into hotel rooms, their children playing in the hallways.
For Lecorps and other chefs who have ramped up massive catering operations in the last few months this is not merely an act of charity: They are being paid for their work, and they are using that money to hire extra workers from their communities — many of whom know what the Haitian refugees are going through because they have been there themselves.
“This is really meaningful work for our team,” said Cassandria Campbell, a first-generation Jamaican-American and cofounder of Fresh Food Generation, a Dorchester restaurant and catering company that got its start in Commonwealth Kitchen. She has been delivering meals to the refugees since January — sometimes feeding new arrivals on a couple hours’ notice.
For Jermaine Tulloch of A Family Affair, a Caribbean fusion caterer he runs with his mother, who immigrated from Montserrat, cooking for the refugees is like feeding family. He’s delighted the city has brought small businesses like his into the emergency response.
“We might not always be able to change the world,” he said. “But every time I deliver food I feel like I’m changing someone’s world.”
Whether they’re being paid or not, a vast army of citizens have converged in this state to meet this refugee crisis, said Ronnie Millar, director of strategic initiatives at the state Office of Refugees and Immigrants: Haitian churches and community organizations provide fellowship, restaurants and ordinary people deliver food and basic supplies to shelters and to Logan for new arrivals getting off planes.
We are not Florida. Here, more people understand that helping desperate immigrants find homes helps not just them, but us. Eventually, the Haitians will move out of the hotels, into jobs where they are desperately needed in health care, education, the professions. Their kids will go to school and grow up to help us all thrive.
“We are taking care of them today, but tomorrow they are going to be taking care of us,” Lecorps said. “All they need is an opportunity.”
In the meantime, there is Freedom Soup.