I born in Rwanda in 1975. My mom and my dad had 12 kids...When they come [and] attack my country… I lost a lot of family. They shoot me too. They shoot me [in the shoulder and thought] I die. At nighttime I left, I walked... I go to Congo…Brazzaville. I live there 10 years. It was a bad life to live in the camp.
—Theogene “Papa” Mahoro, with Rhino Foods since 2005
All across the world, the number of people forced to leave their homes due to violence or conflict continues to rise and, in response, the United States is letting fewer refugees into our country. That’s shameful.
Of course, refugees are not numbers. They’re our neighbors, coworkers, and friends. They make our communities and our country stronger. And what they’ve been through will leave you shaking your head in disbelief. Imagine having to escape your home in the dead of night, leaving your family—many of them now dead—and everything you own. Imagine not knowing if you’ll ever get to make a better life for yourself and those you love.
Every refugee understands that. Every refugee is living that.
But there IS something that unites us all: We all want a safe place to call home. And our partner, Rhino Foods, maker of the amazing cookie dough chunks you know and love, has been helping refugees find a home right here in Vermont for more than 20 years.
When I come here, sometime I feel good, sometime I feel bad. Every day I have dream how the people they kill me, they shoot me… That's why...I need to be busy all the time. That help me. I don't need to thinking too much. If I'm working, very good for me.
When refugees arrive in this country, they’ve often endured unimaginable loss, which is why it’s so important for them to receive help and support right away. Amila Merdzanovic, director of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants Vermont, explained, “They lose their home, they lose their job, they lose their family members and their networks. To come here and to get an opportunity to work...is life-changing,” she said.
Rhino Foods began hiring refugees in the 1990s. We’ve been working with Rhino since the mid-1980s, but we took our partnership to the next level in 1990 when we asked if they could make all the cookie dough for Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. ALL of it. They said yes. “It was a huge opportunity,” Ted Castle, Rhino’s CEO, said. “We grew from probably 30 employees to 60 employees, almost overnight.” They had to increase hiring, and quickly.
At that same moment, a wave of Bosnian refugees were being resettled in Vermont. The timing was exquisite. Hiring refugees, said Castle, “was one of the best decisions we ever made.”
I started work in 2005… I love that job.... It's good for me because I have a good time at home, I work over there, then I can work on my farm... So I love this business, the work that helps me, my kids, my family, they love it too.
From offering ESL classes to providing a prayer room and celebrating cultural holidays, Rhino has evolved to meet the needs of their employees—who come not only from Bosnia, but also Bhutan, Nepal, Rwanda, and elsewhere. “We feel that we're very fortunate to have created this community where diversity and inclusion is part of who we are,” he told us, adding, “we still have a lot to learn.”
Amila Merdzanovic sees that willingness to learn as essential. ”There has to be that desire and that open-mindedness on the part of the employer... Rhino continues to look to us, and other experts in the community, for ways to improve, adjust, and continue to grow and be successful.”
Merdzanovic was herself a refugee, arriving in 1995. So she knows what it feels like to come to this country with nothing, and she knows how life-changing the offer of a good job can be. The truth is, refugees are eager to get to work and start establishing a new life. VRRP’s data shows that 90% of refugees are considered self-sufficient within eight months, which is remarkable for any population.
After five years, I bring my family, my wife. Now we live together. We have eight kids. And five kids, they finish college. Three kids, they study now. One is high school, two the middle school.
Welcoming refugees is the right thing to do. It’s what America has done throughout our history. So why, exactly, is the Trump administration taking such a harsh position on refugees? We’ve heard a lot of incendiary rhetoric coming out of Washington, DC, and it’s important to set the record straight. Refugees are not a security risk. In fact, they benefit this country in many ways—from increasing our diversity to boosting our economy.
While the cultural and economic benefits are valuable, for Merdzanovic it comes down to this: “We cannot turn our backs [on] the most vulnerable individuals in the world.” All refugees, she said, “are looking to establish a good life for themselves and their children...because back home, or back in the refugee camp, that was not an option."
After experiencing unspeakable tragedy in his home country of Rwanda, Theogene arrived here in 2005 and has been working tirelessly to create a new life for himself and his family ever since. He quickly found a job at Rhino and after a few years was able to bring over his wife and children. In 2014 he joined the Pine Island Community Farm, where he loves raising chickens and hosting barbecues and other community celebrations. He and his wife have sent five kids (so far!) to college. And just think of how many people he’s made happy by helping bring all those pints of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough into the world! But nothing tops this: he found a place to call home.
We are proud to know Theogene Mahoro. We’re proud that he and other refugees are here. But pride and good will, especially during these times, aren’t enough. With a complete absence of leadership in Washington, business must lead the push for progressive change. As our co-founder, Ben Cohen, said, “The only way that we're ever going to deal with the problems that are confronting us is for business to get involved.”
There’s a reason we’ve worked with Rhino all these years… and it’s not JUST about the singular deliciousness of their cookie dough chunks. They put people first. “I look at business as a force for good,” Castle said. “We believe that whatever we can do at Rhino to help people be better at home is important, and we want to have people bring their best selves to work ” It’s amazing what can happen when you focus on doing good. You begin to change the world, one person at a time.