A refugee-led co-op in Anchorage provides work experience, with flavor

a woman in a black burka puts spices in small bags
A FIG co-op member scoops out the blended Xawaash to fill “pinch packs.” (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Nooristani read through a long list of ingredients to be carefully measured and added to a large tub filled with mounds of ground spices, on a recent afternoon at the RAIS Welcome Center in Northeast Anchorage.

The spice she was blending is called Xawaash. It’s one of the five spice blends sold through Anchorage’s refugee-led co-op called Fresh International Gardens, or FIG. FIG started the spice business around 2018, and after upgrading their packaging, the “Global Spice Blends” have been so popular that they’re now available in the aisles of Anchorage markets, and could soon expand to other parts of the state.

For Nooristani, who asked to only use her last name, the spice program provides supplemental income, about $11 an hour, while also gaining valuable business experience and improving her English skills.

Nooristani is originally from Afghanistan and has lived in Alaska for about a year. She’s been working with FIG for most of that time — on one of their two urban farms in Anchorage during the summer, and now in the winter, with the spice blends.

Nooristani said her transition to life in Alaska has been smooth, for the most part.

“Back home, in Afghanistan, we have our own agriculture system, like, it’s local. So we’re all familiar with agriculture stuff,” she said, through an interpreter. “The only thing we’re not familiar with here is the snow and the cold weather.”

A FIG co-op member carefully fills a sample “pinch pack” of the Xawaash blend. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

FIG is a branch of the RAIS (Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services) program, which resettled a record 502 refugees this year — a typical year might see more like 150 arrivals.

Keenan Plate is the Refugee Enterprise and Agriculture Program Manager at RAIS, and said the FIG co-op gives some of the most vulnerable among those arrivals an opportunity to build business and language skills while integrating into the community.

“So it’s like moms with young kids, or elderly clients that might not be looking for work, maybe it’s people with medical issues who aren’t gonna be able to have full time work,” he said. “And FIG really provides that, not just a low barrier, but a no-barrier job training opportunity.”

Plate said FIG was established in 2007 but really took off after they rebranded a few years ago. The program was originally just focused on selling fresh vegetables, but has expanded into baked goods, herb-infused vinegars, and now — dry spices. 

He said they decided to sell spice blends similar to those used in their clients’ home communities, and they’ve been a hit.

“There’s been enough demand for us to seek out wholesale relationships and selling them in New Sagaya City Market, and also Blue Market in Anchorage sells our products,” he said. “We’ve had other farmer markets in other parts of the state like Southeast Alaska and Sitka reach out about buying our spices wholesale.” 

The Spice Blend Variety Pack rests on a table at the Welcome Center in Anchorage. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Deghan is another FIG member who was recently pasting labels, filling spice packs and assembling holiday gift boxes at the Welcome Center.

She said one of the spice blends, the Garam Masala, is very similar to the seasoning she used in Afghanistan, and is a staple in her Alaska pantry.

“We use this spice with rice, with potatoes that we cook, and meat, and with meat soup… The red spice can be used almost with everything,” she said through an interpreter.

Deghan and Nooristani said they’re from different parts of a large country, so didn’t meet until settling in Alaska. At this point though, they’re laughing and joking with each other like old friends. 

Part of the appeal of the FIG program, according to its organizers, is that it provides not just job training and part-time income, but socialization opportunities for their clients.

Deghan agreed.

“We’re working and at the same time it’s very good to come together from different families and we can see each other,” she said. “And it’s a better place to get together and talk and share experiences and also work.”

The FIG members will start up their crop seeding process at the Welcome Center in mid-March, but until then they’ll keep packaging the flavors of the world to spice up Alaska’s kitchens.

[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]

Michael Fanelli reports on economics and hosts the statewide morning news at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at mfanelli@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8445. Read more about Michael here.

Previous articleAnchorage students may have stretch of longer school days to make up for recent snow days
Next articleActing Alaska health commissioner Hedberg is pick for permanent boss