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Overcoming barriers through food

Anum Imran ’21 founded Traditional Kitchens, a refugee women-led cooperative cookery in Chapel Hill. She is pictured posing between the archway posts at Davis Library.(photo by Kristen Chavez) Anum Imran ’21 founded Traditional Kitchens, a refugee women-led cooperative cookery in Chapel Hill. (photo by Kristen Chavez)

Anum Imran ’21 learned about the economic and social struggles of immigrant families while growing up in Concord, North Carolina, with parents and grandparents who had come to the United States from Pakistan.

“My mother was very young, and my grandfather was a businessman,” said Imran, now a sophomore double majoring in political science and statistics and analytics. She is co-founder and director of business development for Traditional Kitchens, a refugee women-led cooperative cookery in Chapel Hill.

“I did not experience those hardships, but as I got older, I learned about all of the things my family and grandfather went through to keep his business running. Language barriers were just one of the biggest issues they faced,” she said.

The knowledge and compassion she felt for her own family’s struggles led to assisting other immigrant families. In high school, for example, she helped refugee women in Charlotte sell their hand-knit and embroidered caps to local university students.

Imran was thus primed for social entrepreneurship when she arrived at UNC-Chapel Hill in fall 2018 and ended up in a first-year seminar on “Creating Social Value,” taught by public policy adjunct professor of the practice Melissa Carrier.

The course, designed to “immerse students in the process of designing innovative solutions for social change,” helped Imran focus her ideas and apply for entry to CUBE, the Campus Y’s social innovation incubator. There she received coaching from seasoned entrepreneurs and connections to resources and networks.

Among those connections was Refugee Community Partnership, a nonprofit focused on providing a comprehensive support infrastructure for refugee families. Imran met three women through RCP — two from Myanmar, one from Syria. They were interested in food entrepreneurship and looking for an avenue to pursue it. Imran was looking for a way to help.

“Refugee women often find it difficult to enter the workforce because they need to stay at home with children, lack transportation or face language barriers,” said Imran. “They also face a lot of social isolation because of those same issues.”

Traditional Kitchens addresses those issues, providing an opportunity for women to share their stories through food, earn a living and connect with their community. Last July, the women launched their new venture as a program of RCP.

Traditional Kitchens has already gained attention, with a writeup in The News & Observer and a Community Impact Award for Imran from the North Carolina Campus Compact, a statewide network of colleges and universities with a commitment to civic engagement.

With initial success in the form of a couple of catering jobs each month and some sold-out pop-up events, Imran is helping her refugee artisan colleagues develop a business plan. They are also exploring offering a weekly subscription meal service.

“Our goal is to bring in more women and, perhaps, expand to serve refugees across the Triangle. But that must come after we are absolutely certain we are sustainable. I don’t want to bring on any other team members until we know we can help them sustain an income,” Imran said.

“I feel very passionate about supporting their economic development — not by providing resources and jobs, but supporting them in creating opportunities for themselves. The idea of economic equity is important to me, and business is a way to achieve that.”

Learn more about Traditional Kitchens.

By Cyndy Falgout

Part of “Tar Heels’ True North,” a package of stories of Tar Heels who directed their compass toward creating a better tomorrow. Read more stories:

Bridging our silos

Making miracles happen

Examining what divides us

From math to mental health