Sometimes we get so swept up in all it takes to keep things moving day to day – all the emails and Canva designs and short-hand WhatsApp messages – that we forget to pause and acknowledge the reality of how far we have come. Today, Friday March 5th 2021, we wanted to take a moment to step back and recognize just how remarkable it is that we’ve arrived at this milestone: the launch of our Community Cafe at 25 Temple Street.
It wasn’t that long ago that Havenly was mostly a dream. It was Nieda’s love and energy channeled into trays of baklava dripping with syrup she made at home, to be sold to students in Yale butteries. Then it was long nights spent at Whole G industrial bakery in New Haven, a warehouse-like structure we used to rent a few nights per week, where Caterina and Nieda once had to work so long into the night that together they watched the sun rise. Havenly used to be 45-minute bus rides every day to the Jewish Community Center in Woodbridge, where we occupied our second rented kitchen space. The JCC gave us a home for the second cohort of our fellowship. It gave us a jungle gym for the children we looked after every Sunday while their mothers worked and took part in our fellowship
We worked out of the JCC for seven months. It was during this time that we started having conversations about opening our own cafe. For so many reasons, it became the vision that made sense for us. First of all, Nieda made it clear: Her dream was to have her own space. Somewhere she owned the keys to, somewhere she could “open it (herself) in the morning and close up at night.”
When Nieda says she wants something, it’s hard not to try to move heaven and earth to make it happen. At first we wondered if we had what it took to run our own storefront, but Nieda reminded us in her way that she’d lived lifetimes before us; before the U.S. In Baghdad, she ran her own bakery and a deli, which sold out every night and attracted crowds of people every day. In Syria, she opened and operated another successful store. In Turkey, she ran a salon out of her home when the government told her she couldn’t work because of her refugee status. She’s been an entrepreneur longer than we’ve been alive.
The idea of having our own storefront grew from a thrilling seed of thought into an integral part of our theory of change. Imagining Havenly as a physical place gave us license to dream more concretely about what we would want to offer our community, if we had four walls and could do anything within them. What if we could integrate all the parts that make up the whole of Havenly – the food business, the classroom learning, the planning and administrative work, the community building – in one place? What if our computer classes didn’t have to take place on broken and borrowed laptops or at organizations half an hour away, but instead could happen on site in our own computer lab? What if we had our own place to host social gatherings, after COVID of course – what kinds of conversations and exchanges could we make possible? It’s probably not a coincidence that this is around the time when we began to center community organizing – as a process and as an ethos – in our vision of change. Having a physical space is definitely not a prerequisite to doing organizing work, but it sure as hell makes it easier. As a community it gives us a place to co-create memories in, a stable background against which to paint our identities as people who have stake in each other, and our visions for the future.
We took the first step towards this vision in March, when we signed a temporary lease at what was formerly Sweet Mary’s Bakery at 125 Court Street, and launched a food relief program. Then in September, after a month of touring different locations that were either too expensive or too small or not quite us, we found our place – what was once Mr. Crab, at 25 Temple Street. Some people tried to discourage us from taking the lease. They called the location “cursed.” Said that the infamous brutalist parking lot that looms above the whole block would mean we’d never attract customers.
But personally, I think it was a done deal since the moment Nieda toured it for the first time. There was just a gut feeling about it– the kitchen felt just big enough to hold all of Nieda’s tremendous presence as a chef. The space was just big enough for our dreams of a cafe and learning center combined. It’s in the heart of Downtown, just a block from the Green and accessible by a dozen bus routes.
It’s taken a labor of love to transform the place from Mr. Crab to Havenly Treats. Our first week, the place was filled by current and past fellows who we’d hired to help us clean. Together, we filled garbage bags with half-filled liquor bottles, seafood leftovers, and American-flag themed wooden crabs that hung from the walls. Nieda led the fellows in a total scourge and redesign of the commercial kitchen. We sold a half dozen enormous, red plastic booths that once filled the main room to a family starting their own business in a nearby town. All this time, the space was already becoming our office and a home – I’ll never forget the night we watched Parent Trap in the back room with Nieda’s children, elated that we had found a working TV left behind.
The magic of this space today is that it’s only just taken form, and yet it’s already an expression of the community and spirit we hope to keep building. The space was created by our fellows, volunteers, local New Haven artists, formerly incarcerated community members, and refugee artists. Initially, the task of rebuilding this space felt overwhelming. So we called in our fellows, artists from MakeHaven, a Syrian team of painters, an Egyptian architect, Cate’s mom!, and the construction team at EMERGE, a social enterprise that provides job training, educational workshops, and a community of emotional support for people who have been formerly incarcerated. Together, we started imagining the space, drawing and re-drawing floor plans, making mood boards, and trying to figure out how to make the most beautiful space possible on our tight budget.
Before you even step inside, you’ll see a hanging sign outside announcing who we are, pulled off by the hands of folks at Make Haven. They also imagined and installed the many dozen paper cranes that hang from the front entrance, as well as helped us express our vision statement on the wall in big, bold letters. The first wall you see after walking in is covered in photos that document memories of Havenly’s journey thus far, as well as photos of the places that the women in our community call home. We asked them to send us images of places that they love and that make them happy to see, so on that wall you’ll see the rivers of Khartoum, famous palm trees of Sudan, the Babel Tower in Iraq, and the Ishtar gate in Baghdad, a symbol of Iraqi cultural pride. The very wall that holds up these pictures was constructed by a team from EMERGE, who also helped us redesign the space in the middle.
The furniture in the space was collected by Jad, our program director, over months, scavenging in vintage furniture shops and outlet stores. Walking down the counter you’ll see candles made by Stacy Downer, who we initially reached out to to provide financial empowerment classes for our fellows and who is now our close friend and organizational partner. The candles are one of the offerings of her up and coming business, Bathe in Blessings, and she made a special line of them that specifically reflect her relationships with the women in our community, with labels that read “peace and love” in Spanish and Arabic.
Then walk to the back room, and you’ll see computers donated and installed graciously by Concepts for Adaptive Learning, who immediately responded to our call for support in offering a robust digital literacy program to our fellows.
The last few months have already been a rich and varied journey for us. 25 Temple Street has already been the home for the third cohort of our fellowship, which consists of 6 women from Sudan, Guatemala, and Mexico. They have breathed life into this place, and together we’ve created an atmosphere of mutual support and sisterhood. We hope and believe this is palpable and healing to anyone who walks into our space. But we know it’s just the beginning.