April 26, 2018
by Yanki Tshering
This year's BCNA Immigrant Heritage Week Awards ceremony had a special and very timely focus: supporting refugees and displaced people as they rebuild their lives, often from nothing. That focus reflected an energized and passionate recommitment by our Board of Directors and our dedicated staff to our mission of supporting refugees as well as immigrants here in New York.
We were therefore extremely grateful to have Aline Sara, the co-founder of NaTakallam, as our very moving and inspiring Keynote speaker. Aline, who was born in the United States to parents who had fled the war in their native Lebanon, was looking for an affordable way to practice her Lebanese Arabic when she had a sudden inspiration: why not connect students of conversational Arabic via a digital platform with displaced Syrians in Lebanon struggling to get work permits and earn an income.
She created and launched NaTakallam – which means "We Speak" – to do just that in 2015. Since then NaTakallam has leveraged the internet economy to help support displaced persons' livelihoods by pairing them with over 1,800 language learners in more than 65 countries, for over 18,000 hours of NaTakallam language sessions to date.
NaTakallam provides not only a much-needed source of income for displaced persons who have often lost everything, but also a valuable source of connection and community through their online interactions with students and clients. Expanding to address more of the current refugee crisis, NaTakallam is now expanding to include translation in Arabic, Spanish, and French as well.
This was our 7th year recognizing outstanding immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs with the BCNA Immigrant Heritage Week Awards and we were honored to have Gregg Bishop, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Small Business Services, (SBS) with us to present the awards.
This year's BCNA Job Creator Award wen to Sharmila Sherchan, chef and owner of Mustang Thakali Kitchen – a Nepali restaurant in Queens which is known for its delicious Himalayan cuisine. The BCNA Bootstrap Entrepreneur Award was presented to Ahmed Mbaye, owner of Mbaye Transportation Services, which started with one car and is now a fleet of 5 vehicles. The BCNA New Beginning Award, recognizing successful graduates of BCNA's IDA Program which provides match grants to refugees saving for further education or to start a small business, went to Virginie Atake, Muhammad, and Pema Omu Lama.
A lively panel discussion on how immigrant and refugee food businesses leverage the internet as the new "word of mouth" was moderated by journalist and photographer Nina Roberts who has written extensively about immigrant entrepreneurship in many major publications and is currently working on a book about the immigrant entrepreneur ecosystem in the U.S.
Panelists included Godshelter Kwesi Oluwaongon, owner of Divine Flavored Nigerian Catering and winner of the 2018 Vendy Awards for best food truck; Nabin Sherchin, BCNA client and co-owner of Mustang Thakali Kitchen and his son, who spoke about using social media to promote their restaurant; BCNA client Denys Gorbatiuk, who spoke about the challenges of marketing Den's Hot Dogs, his famous kosher hotdogs; BCNA client Khalid Hamid of Island Pops, Caribbean-style ice cream that he has successfully marketed to a Caribbean community and is now looking to expand to a larger market; Manal Kahl of Eat Offbeat, a start up that has received rave reviews for food prepared by talented refugee home cooks from around the world; and BCNA board member and entrepreneur Deepti Sharma of FoodtoEat.
Our 7th annual awards event, held each year in conjunction with New York's Immigrant Heritage Week was made possible by our sponsors - Citi Community Development, The New York Women's Foundation, Food to Eat, St. Vendor Project, NYC Small Biz Services, Santander, HSBC, M&T, BNB, Wells Fargo and Signature Banks, & Esusu, and we thank them all for their ongoing commitment to helping new Americans thrive and help their communities thrive here in New York.
All photos by Michael Palma Mir