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Chicago Business Finds Success in Refugee Employment

The late Eli Schulman had a mantra. “My Dad would always say, 'Charity will never bust you.'”

It’s how Marc Schulman says his father Eli ran his restaurants in various locations in Chicago, and eventually the company that today bears his name - Eli’s Cheesecake – which remains a popular dessert to the stars.

“I proudly wear the Cartier watch the Sinatras sent my father in 1987,” says Schulman, who recalls the popular crooner Frank Sinatra as a regular customer to Eli’s through the years.

“We also did Hillary Clinton’s 50th birthday cake when she was in Chicago with then-President Clinton,” adds Schulman, who serves as Eli’s president. The list of celebrities doesn’t stop there.

Pictures that hang on the walls of his Chicagoland bakery show President Barack Obama, comedians, actors and politicians - all with one thing in common: the subject smiling in front of, behind, or over one of Eli’s famous cheesecakes.

“We’ve evolved from a restaurant company to a cheesecake that’s now available in most of the United States and around the world,” Schulman explains.

While many of his products are found on restaurant menus and in grocery store freezers, few who enjoy them realize one of the secrets to his company’s success isn’t just how they are made – they are all made by hand – it’s whose hand has a hand in each dessert's creation.

“People always say, you know, you’re such a good company because you hire refugees,” Schulman told VOA in an interview from his corporate headquarters. “I say, no – we’re a smart company.”

Refugees represent about 15 percent of Eli’s work force of roughly 220 employees. Among them is Elias Kasonga, who arrived at the bakery in 1994 after fleeing unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1990.

“I was a student at the University of Lubumbashi, and Mobutu and his regime came and massacred the students and I had no choice but to flee.” For Kasonga, a job at Eli’s was all he had starting his new life in the U.S.

“I had no degree, I had no experience, basically I had nothing – I had no skills at all. A company like Eli’s Cheesecake took a chance on me and so I personally had to do the best I could.”

Thanks to Eli’s, Kasonga said he got experience, skills and eventually a degree. He’s now a purchasing manager at the company, and serves on the board of directors of Refugee One, a non-profit group helping refugees start new lives in the U.S.

Over the last 25 years, with the help of job placement services through organizations such as Refugee One, hundreds of refugees have found gainful employment at Eli’s Cheesecake. The company’s history of hiring refugees earned recognition from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Felippo Grandi, during his visit to the bakery earlier this year.

Schulman says the floor of his bakery in some ways represents the floor of the United Nations. “You see different waves, you know if it was from Bosnia, or from the Congo, or from Iraq.”

Schulman says he is prepared for the next wave from Syria, should they desire - and qualify - for work at his bakery.

“I think to the credit of the State Department to the credit of Refugee One, when you are picking people to be in this program, there’s a lot of vetting and other things that go on, so we’re going to put all the politics aside.”

Since 1975, more than 3 million refugees have resettled in the U.S. It now has one of the largest refugee resettlement programs in the world, and is growing as more people flee violence, unrest and war in the Middle East. An important part of the U.S. refugee resettlement program is self-sufficiency, and Eli’s is one of the companies that provide some refugees that key component in their resettlement.

President Obama plans to resettle about 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. by October, and even more in 2017. Hundreds are expected to come to Chicago… in much the same way as Eli Schulman’s family over 100 years ago.

Marc Schulman says working with refugees is about more than just charity… it’s in his DNA.

“That’s a great reason for our success,” says Schulman. “We watch individuals who have been here and they’ve become citizens, and they make a real contribution to Eli’s.”

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.