By Sara Logeman*
“The whole world comes to you if you can come and be in this place.”
The place to which Leah Lonsbury is referring is Clarkston, Georgia. Many immigrants settle in Clarkston from truly all over the world – people from 50 countries across six continents – seeking to build a new life for themselves and their families. Because half of the residents in Clarkston are foreign born, a vibrant ethnic diversity and convergence of cultural practices defines the city. Come, and meet the whole world.
But beneath that beauty and promise often lies struggle. As refugees work to achieve economic stability in their new home, they are often met with obstacles. At best, many have their education cut short or interrupted in the process of migration. But many receive no formal education. Without such credentials, not to mention the language barrier, many refugees struggle to gain access to jobs. And if they do secure one, it is likely to pay them far less than a living wage. This is a reality for many refugees in Clarkston, confirmed by the unusually high unemployment rate of 31.5 percent.
What if this chronic problem of access could be alleviated?
Lonsbury has responded in a unique and innovative way with the creation of Just Bakery of Atlanta. When she founded the bakery in 2017 to sit at “the crossroads of feeding people and creating justice in the world,” Lonsbury had a vision: to employ resettled refugees and help them attain a firmer economic footing. Her atypical business model provides job training, a professional bakery and small-business management certification and pays employees $15 an hour. Just Bakery also offers flexible business hours for those with families and small children.
This opportunity has been transformative for employees Bhima from Nepal, Sisto from Congo and Uganda, Hayat from Syria, Carmel from Congo and Namibia, Mariam from Pakistan and Zenaba from Central African Republic. Just Bakery gives them the space to learn and master a tangible skill regardless of their prior work experience or knowledge base. The simple act of kneading dough is not only capacity-building but also honors their ability to contribute to their community in meaningful ways.
Bhima, Just Bakery’s assistant kitchen manager, lived in a Nepalese refugee camp for 17 years before immigrating to the United States. Watch the video below to learn more about what working for Just Bakery means to her:
At the moment, Just Bakery is operating from a church kitchen. The small-but-mighty crew sells their baked goods at farmer’s markets and festivals around Atlanta and, occasionally, through pop-up sales.
Lorrie King, program manager for the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s sustainable development unit, discovered Just Bakery by scrolling through Instagram. Their work “struck a chord and really burdened my heart,” she recalled. Having devoted much of her professional life to refugee-resettlement issues, from research and writing on the topic for her master’s thesis to teaching at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health in the area of refugee health and resettlement, King was acutely aware of the impact Just Bakery could make in Atlanta’s refugee community.
She lived in Clarkston for 10 years and said she “knew firsthand the struggle of newly arrived refugees. I watched so many refugee parents work two, three and four jobs, always away from home, going from one cycle of poverty to the next. I saw the potential and need for support if this program [were] going to make it.”
She reached out to Lonsbury with the possibility of a grant that would help Just Bakery continue to grow into its vision. “Leah and her team were stepping up where others were resigned to the status quo,” King said. “What they were doing fit perfectly with our Livelihoods portfolio, which seeks to provide grant support for programs of vocational and small-business training, financial literacy and microlending.” At nearly $100,000, the UMCOR grant will support Just Bakery’s job training and certification program, a storefront build-out and even a van for making deliveries.
“The UMCOR grant will allow us to go the next step,” continued Lonsbury. She is excited that the employees can offer their baked goods daily and for the bakery to be “a front-facing place with a regular presence in the community.” A space to claim as their own will also allow Just Bakery’s business model to expand into opportunities for retail training, giving its employees yet another skill to use in their resettlement phase and beyond. But Lonsbury dreams big, so she would love to see Just Bakery meet even more needs in the wider community like doubling as a gathering space for fellow refugees and hosting events for local nonprofits.
“I love this grant because it is as much a bold theological statement as it is a practical livelihoods project,” claimed the Rev. Jack Amick, UMCOR’s director of global migration and sustainable development.
“In Jesus’ day, the fear was that there wasn’t enough. In our day, the fear is that there isn’t enough. Jesus used bread to turn that paradigm upside down. In Jesus’ day, the Roman Empire provided bread. Jesus made the radical claim that God provides the bread. In our day, money provides bread. Just Bakery makes the radical claim that the poor, the outcast, the refugee can provide bread.”
Just Bakery’s storefront is currently under renovation. The plan is to open by early October. They have hired more refugees to staff the storefront and train in retail capacities, bringing their total employee count to 13: Yeser from Venezuela, Mohamed from Somalia, Laleeta from Bhutan, Nuli from Burma, Nem from Myanmar, Mehrnush from Iran and Latifa from Congo/Uganda.
UMCOR looks forward to seeing the ways in which this grant will further the mission of Just Bakery to be a compassionate and life-giving resource for refugees making Atlanta home. “I am excited to follow their star,” said King, “and continue our partnership however we are able.”
*Logeman is the content strategist for Global Ministries.