Benyounes, a soft-spoken, slender man with olive skin, speaks of his experience as an immigrant coming to San Francisco as if he’s reciting poetry, reminiscing on his adjustment to his new life in the Bay Area. He shares memories of bustling in the kitchen of Volare Pizzeria on Haight Street, serving slices of pizza over the hot oven, while welcoming customers in his native Moroccan accent to “Enjoy while it’s hot.” Since leaving Volare Pizzeria, Benyounes has moved on to search for teaching jobs, similar to his profession in Morocco as a high school chemistry and physics teacher, but openings are limited, and many only hire applicants who are fluent in English. Like countless other immigrants in the Bay Area, Benyounes’s story is similar to many who hop between jobs in the service sector while searching for the right fit. Yet when he reflects on his personal journey, he looks you in the eye and recalls his rocky struggles, first with unemployment in San Francisco to the odds he faces now competing for jobs in the U.S’s economic recession.
In 2006, Benyounes arrived from Morocco to San Francisco on the Diversity Visa Lottery with his wife and two boys. Soon after, Benyounes came to the African Immigrant & Refugee Resource Center seeking assistance with employment and housing. More importantly, he was looking to connect with friends to guide and support him in navigating his new home. The obstacles began to mount when his family could no longer comfortably stay at his sister-in-law’s house after the first month. Tempers flared between his relatives, sparked by conflicting expectations on living arrangements, and personal differences. The complex social dynamics of living in an unfamiliar city with new expectations were just his first barriers. He left with his two children to go back to Rabat, Morocco in February of 2007, so they could live in a more stable environment with his sister. Shortly splitting from his wife, in the Bay Area, he returned alone to San Francisco a few weeks later. Although a part of him seemed to remain in Morocco, he began a new journey as a single man in San Francisco.
After returning from Morocco, having spent thousands of dollars on plane tickets, Benyounes’s first steps were to apply for a Social Security card, a California ID, and start everything short of a new life. He began coming to the African Immigrant & Refugee Resource Center in March of 2007 and explained to the caseworkers his frustration in finding affordable housing and livable paying jobs that do not require high-levels of English. The Center provided listings of affordable housing and signed him up for several housing wait-lits. Instead, he preferred to avoid the backlog of public housing and found a more comfortable, personal setting at a Tenderloin apartment with an Algerian friend. The Center referred him to a technological training at Cartridge World, but no related jobs panned out.
One of this biggest obstacles was navigating through the red tape and bureaucratic barriers to employment, housing, and qualifying for certain medical benefits as a legal permanent resident. Yet, he was gaining a familiarity with such obstacles after having gone through the rough fourteen month process of the Diversity Visa Lottery. The United States Department grants roughly 50,000 permanent resident visas annually to persons from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States through this lottery. Most participants come from Asia and Africa, and must meet specific educational or occupational requirements. Having taught high school chemistry and physics for years, Benoyoune met the criteria and in 2006 was able to apply with his wife and two children, allowing them to work and reside in the U.S. as legal permanent residents. For the 2008 Diversity Visa Lottery (which refers to the lottery that took place in the fall of 2006, and allows visa recipients to enter the U.S. in 2008), more than 10 million individuals participated. Benyounes constantly reminds himself that his family has already overcome the odds in coming to the U.S.
While attending prayer services at the Attawhid mosque on Sutter and Polk in the Tenderloin, Benyounes met Abdel Mokrani, the Volare Pizzeria manager. He recalls their first encounter in 2007, “I was looking for any work – part time. Abdel needed someone to open and to start the oven and clean up. I made fish one day for him – he found out I was a good chef so he pushed me to try cooking pizza. He even gave me his secrets (for sauce and pasta) and I improved them because I’m a chemist.” Together, Benyounes and Abdel altered and improved their recipes as well as the restaurant’s interior and exterior design.
Benyounes reflects in French on the unexpected skills he has picked up, “Je ne savais rien,” meaning that he had no experience in managing a restaurant whatsoever, crediting Islam and his spirituality for this. “You must have, above all, faith,” explaining that patience is one of its main virtues. Patience, he attests, is the first thing that helped him when it seemed all solutions and support were gone as a newly arrived immigrant in the U.S.
Volare Pizzeria stands out as one of the many city hot spots that is run and staffed by African immigrants. Most staff are North Africans or maghreb, which makes it a resource for news, celebrations and connections among San Francisco’s maghreb community. In fact, the number of Africans in San Francisco still remains “countless” and unknown because there is little conclusive census data – only extensive statistics on the number of residents who consider themselves “Black.” In fact, several staff of Volare Pizzeria joined the San Francisco Immigrant Legal & Education Network on APril 16, 2008, at City Hall to meet with Supervisors to explain the language and social service needs of the growing African population.
“I need to learn English, to help my position as manager,” Benyounes states just after one month and a half on the job. Often times working along at the pizzeria in the late nights, managing the cashier and kitchen, he would find time to practice his English. “I study English when it’s slow…I practice English with customers. I understand a little but it’d hard.” He notes that picking up on the slang of customers and nearby residents has been the hardest part of the language. With his eyes bright and wide, as if revealing a piece of hidden wisdom, he exclaims, “I noticed that Americans are really polite…that really makes me happy. When they know I don’t understand [what they're saying], they try to help me.”
Benyounes insisted “on peut jamais rester sans faire ren, il y a toujours travail” – there’s always more to do at work. “I never thought I’d be giving so much of my life to pizza!” Though he has moved on to look for higher-level jobs, his eyes squint with melancholy, speaking with gratitude about the support he has received at Volare Pizzeria and the African Immigrant & Refugee Resource CEnter. “I can’t tell you how much this has done for me. They are some of my only friends (in the U.S.). They’re my soutien (support).”
This article is a series of stories highlighting the different experiences of immigrants in San Francisco. Story written by Joe Sciarrillo of the African Immigrant & Refugee Resource Center.