Havin Gavgasi, Kurdish Immigrant and Local Coffee Shop Owner

Editor’s Note: I’m sitting in the corner of my favorite coffee shop, nestled away writing my weekly profiles.  The amazing thing about this site is that it provokes you to ask questions to the people you have daily interactions with, oftentimes unveiling the most incredible stories that you otherwise wouldn’t hear. Havin, the 32-year-old woman that owns Ro Café, is a Kurdish immigrant that came to the United States under political asylum. Amidst all the political unrest our world is facing today, Havin is a wonderful example of things going so perfectly right. I cannot begin to sing her praises loud enough.  This is a woman running her coffee shop without any staff, SEVEN DAYS A WEEK for TEN HOURS A DAY.  When she closes the shop at the end of the day, she heads to the grocery store to shop for the food she’ll prepare for the next day.  Her days are long, and whenever I start feeling tired and burnt out, I think of Havin, who considers this workload a privilege.  I encourage you to read her story, support her business and go try her absolutely mouthwatering baklava.  And if you read all the way through, we’ll make that even easier for you to do!

Havin Gavgasi / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Havin Gavgasi / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Havin Gavgasi was born in Kurdistan.  If you look on a map, the region of Kurdistan spreads over Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.  Kurds are considered an ally to the United States, 40 million of them living in what some consider a more “peaceful Iraq”.

One of eleven children-- nine sisters and two brothers-- Havin is the seventh in line.  She and her siblings were raised in the part of Kurdistan occupied by Eastern Turkey, born into a small village and later moving to a larger city.

Because my family was big, it was fun, but economically we had a hard time. I was always wanting to work, even when I was in school I was looking for a job. But it was very hard to find a job where we lived.
Havin with her family / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Havin with her family / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Everyone in her family worked, but they were also extremely politically involved.  They would attend protests fighting for Kurdish rights against Turkey and also fight for women’s rights and cases of political injustice.

After high school, Havin took the mandatory exam that was required for her to attend University, but her options for a career were limited.

There were only a handful of careers you could pursue; a doctor, lawyer, sociology major, teacher or nurse…but that’s it.
Havin with her family / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Havin with her family / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Havin began studying for a few years but decided that the United States was ultimately where she wanted to be.  She had family here—an uncle, a sister-- and the photos they shared and stories they told intrigued her.

In Kurdistan, even if you want to work and run your own business, you’ll still have problems. It’s like you lose your identity.

During her second year of University, Havin applied for a tourist visa but was denied.  It was right after 9/11 and the country was allowing limited visitors into the country, especially from the Middle East.

A couple years later she tried again, this time applying for a student visa so she could move to the United States to learn English.

I came to the US not knowing any English and honestly not wanting to stay. My whole family wanted me to come back home, but after a year I decided to stay a little longer.

She applied for political asylum, pleading to the US that the relationship between the Kurds and Turkey had all but eliminated her individual rights and freedoms. 

The first person who interviewed me rejected my asylum, so I had to go to court. It was so hard, I had to find a lawyer and spend money on that lawyer, even though I wasn’t allowed to work here. My family ended up helping me hire a lawyer and the judge finally decided to accept my asylum.
Havin at the original Ro Cafe / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Havin at the original Ro Cafe / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Havin started working at a variety of jobs; a coffee shop, a salesperson at T.J. Maxx, a nanny and a hostess.

I noticed right away that in the US, people work so hard, but it gives them a lot of options. If you make money you have the chance to travel or do new things. In my country, you’re always dependent on someone.

She watched her co-workers and their work ethic, learning from them and admiring them.  A Kurdish restaurant hired her as their hostess even though she didn’t speak much English at all.

It was funny because people would start talking to me in English, asking me about the menu, drinks, tables…and I would just have to look at them and smile {laughs}. It was difficult.
Ro Cafe / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Ro Cafe / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Havin knew she wanted to open her own business, possibly a coffee shop because, as she saw firsthand, coffee shops allow her to be active and talk with the various customers throughout the day.

For me, it’s hard to work for someone. If I’m working for myself I can work all day long, seven days a week. But when you work for someone, especially as an immigrant, you don’t necessarily know all your own rights and can get taken advantage of.

She started searching the classifieds, looking for a coffee shops that might be for sale that she could take over.

I wanted something small that I could manage myself. I didn’t want to have to call someone to come and help me, I wanted to be able to do it on my own.

After a few months of anxiously searching, she found the perfect storefront located in the Richmond District of San Francisco.  Using the income she had saved from her past jobs, she spent three months fixing up the place, and finally, opened its doors.

Havin making a latte at Ro Cafe / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Havin making a latte at Ro Cafe / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Ro Café was named after the word “Ro” in Kurdish, which means “River” and “Flowing.” The rivers in Kurdistan produce clean and fresh water ideal for making tea, so the name was a natural fit.  Plus, she says laughing, “Ro is easy to pronounce in English.”

When my first shop opened, I worked seven days a week from 7am until 7pm. It wasn’t a busy location so I had to be careful about my menu and put a few things on it that were unique and special so I could get the people there.

After she’d close up the shop, she had to go to the grocery store, purchasing ingredients for the food she’d prepare the next day. There were days she would literally work all day and then all night in order to keep her business running.

Havin's Famous Baklava / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Havin's Famous Baklava / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Customers from all over began noticing the delicious food and coffee Havin was serving at Ro Café.  Travelers would check Yelp and read reviews of her Kurdish delicacies, seeking out the coffee shop while they visited the area.  After two years, her small brick and mortar with its tiny kitchen got to be too tight, and she was ready for a bigger space.

I found a larger coffee shop for sale up the street, and when I visited I thought to myself ‘yes, I would love to come study here!’ I believe if you’re good, people will find you. So, we’ll see!
Havin's Famous Baklava / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Havin's Famous Baklava / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Six months later, the larger Ro Café opened its doors in the Lone Mountain Neighborhood of San Francisco.  As one of the first Kurdish coffee shops in the city, neighborhood locals as well as distant followers come to try Havin’s famous baklava (which is a Kurdish specialty, not Turkish or Greek, she laughs) and her incredible sandwiches and salads, homemade with the recipes she created and perfected back home as a child.

Havin at the new Ro Cafe / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

Havin at the new Ro Cafe / Photo Courtesy Havin Gavgasi

You’re a Kurdish Immigrant, with all the headlines on immigration right now, what is your perspective on immigration issues facing the world right now? 

Immigration is the story of the human race from begining to now. People move to live better lives. They try to survive and move away from danger and wars. For instance, there are a lot of Syrians fleeing a really bad war. I am happy Europe has accepted some of them. I dont have any one in my family who wants to immigrate to the US or anywhere else. If things get really bad, they may have to apply to come to the US. Right now, the war in Southeast Turkey is getting really bad. I am really concerned about my family’s safety.

I oftentimes think that the idea of opening a coffee shop can be romanticized at times.  What’s the reality of opening a coffee shop now that you’re in waist deep?

The reality is i have to work hard. I have to work long hours. I have to get up early and go home late. I don’t have much time for myself. I feel like I am married to my coffee shop. As you know, I do everything here, from ordering the food, to preparing, to cleaning etc. So, romanticized it is not, hard work it is.

You've faced a lot of personal hurdles to make opening this shop a reality.  What advice do you have for a young woman who is trying to start her own business?

I would say, just do it. If you believe in your business idea and you love what you do, just do it. Don’t think too much. You will grow and learn with your business.

What’s your greatest hope for your career?

I am Kurdish and I came from very different culture and different background. I would love to introduce my culture to the people of America with our food. This is my way of telling my story to the people. My greatest hope to grow in my business as much as I can and to be able to help the people of Kurdistan.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

My friend Ned gave me this advice: believe in yourself. When doing any work or project, stay focused like a laser. Surround yourself with achievers and positive thinkers and never forget your roots.

Ro Café is located at 2739 Geary Street, between Wood and Masonic in San Francisco.

When you visit, be sure to say hello to Havin and mention her DRIVEN profile for a free piece of Ro Cafe's famous baklava :) 

Next week, meet Jessi.  After a long career in television production, she decided to shift gears and open her own cycling studios that have taken Portland, Oregon by storm.  She's up next on DRIVEN for Women!

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