Gov. Bill Lee recently added Tennessee to the list of states whose leaders have provided written consent affirming they'll accept new refugee resettlements. As a citizen and business owner in this state, I could not be happier.
When my husband and I were looking for a place to start a coffee roasting company, we eventually settled on Chattanooga, where we founded our business, Mad Priest Coffee Roasters, in 2015. With a little help from Kickstarter and a lot of sweat equity, we watched our business grow. We now have three flourishing establishments: a coffee roastery, espresso bar and an all-day cafe and bar.
Chattanooga, as it turns out, was an excellent choice: Our business has taken off, and we're fortunate enough to employ more than two dozen wonderful workers who have helped make our early success possible. That includes our very first hire, a refugee who had arrived in the United States just weeks earlier from war torn East Africa, with very little English but an eagerness to work and a hunger to learn.
In fact, hiring refugees has been central to The Mad Priest's mission and central to the success of our business. "Champion the displaced" is a central part of our mission statement.
We wanted to build a company that not only sells a good product but one that does good in the world. It's our way to give back not just to refugees but to our adopted city as well, empowering resettled refugees — alongside native-born workers — through employment and on-the-job training, while creating immersive, cultural experiences in our retail locations that everyone can learn from and enjoy.
Tennessee benefits richly from what refugees have to offer. Its towns and cities — not just Chattanooga, but places like Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville — have shown over the years that they can flourish with the addition of people fleeing desolation and oppression.
I came to appreciate at a very young age the promise and possibility of the refugee community and the richness they can add to a community. I grew up about 600 miles south of Chattanooga in Clarkston, Georgia, which sometimes is touted as the most diverse square mile in America. During my childhood and adolescence, many of my closest neighborhood friends were refugees. Years later, my husband and I lived for a few years in India, and we got to see firsthand the plight of refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.
When we returned to the United States and opened up our business, we wanted our coffee shop to be a place where people of different backgrounds could share intellectual discourse and political debate. We reached out to the local refugee resettlement agency in Chattanooga, which has helped us identify five refugee hires in the three years we've been in business.
Since then, we've welcomed a diverse and dedicated team of local Chattanoogans as well as refugees who have helped our business thrive. We were able to turn our dream of creating an inclusive space frequented by people from varying cultures and colors into a reality. One of the most rewarding parts of running our business has been seeing just how welcoming Chattanoogans have been.
The people who have come to work at our business are seeking the very same things as they rebuild lives upended by war, disaster and tragedy. So far, for the most part, it seems that they are finding it.
The refugee from East Africa we hired now is quite proficient in his adopted language. He's also now the production manager of our coffee roasting company.
The Mad Priest, meanwhile, is becoming what my husband and I have hoped it would be: a place where people — American-born and refugees — can celebrate timeless rituals of communion and friendship. We're overjoyed that these these exchanges, which have proven so enriching to the refugee community and to Chattanooga as a whole, now are certain of being able to go on.
Cherita Rice and her husband, Michael, own and operate The Mad Priest, a cafe and bar in Chattanooga.