Bhima Thapa grew up cooking over open flames. She didn’t own an oven. She didn’t even have a stove.
Born in the nation of Bhutan in South Asia, Thapa and her family relocated to Nepal when she was 2½-years-old. She spent the next 17 years in a refugee camp before moving to Atlanta when she was 19.
“I grew up seeing fire everywhere,” she tells PEOPLE. “You don’t have fire, you don’t cook your food.”
Now 30, Thapa is the head baker at Just Bakery of Atlanta, a non-profit that teaches refugees to bake while paying a living wage.
Founded two years ago, the bakery’s rotating menu includes butterscotch and chai currant scones, blueberry gingerbread muffins, rosemary focaccia, and peanut butter curry cookies.
“We try to keep items on the menu that are influenced by the bakers in our kitchen — or are their recipes,” says founder Leah Lonsbury, 41, an ordained Baptist pastor who holds a Master of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.
A new baker is now teaching everyone how to make Syrian flat breads and baklava. “Peanut butter curry isn’t something you’d jump to — but it’s crazy delicious,” she says.
Lonsbury spent the 2015-16 school year teaching high school English at a diverse school in Atlanta and volunteered through her church to help resettle an Afghani family. She helped the family enroll their kids in school and showed them where the local grocery stores were.
Sitting with the family while waiting for an appointment at the International Rescue Committee’s office, Lonsbury watched the job board scroll, and was horrified by the terrible, low-paying job options for resettled refugees.
“Nobody can live on that kind of money or raise a family around working 12 hours a day with an hour and a half commute on both sides, working in a chicken factory that’s dangerous and gross and has no opportunity for advancement,” she says.
A passionate home cook who loves hosting dinner parties, Lonsbury wanted to combine her love of food with her desire to make change. Originally, she contemplated a meal-prep delivery service, but friends in Wisconsin run a different non-profit called Just Bakery that trains people recently released from prison. They suggested she try a bakery.
“They led the way,” she says.
With their permission, she borrowed their name (she loves the play on words) and hired a baker. With a $38,000 grant from Oakhurst Baptist Church (where she’s a member), Lonsbury launched her non-profit in October 2017.
“It was still getting to work at the crossroads of feeding people and making change. It was a plan I could make work,” Lonsbury says. “And who doesn’t love cookies and bread?”
Their kitchen is located in Stone Mountain inside a Presbyterian church, which is also home to other refugee-owned and refugee-benefitting non-profits.
Last summer, the kitchen had no AC. The walk-in freezer died and is now just storage. The dishwasher is broken, so everything has to be hand washed.
During their busy season for Valentine’s Day, all three ovens stopped working. Other churches welcomed them to finish their pre-orders in their kitchen, and a friend of Lonsbury’s donated $8,000 to buy three new commercial ovens.
“It’s been drama after drama,” Lonsbury says. “People have opened doors for us and given generously and said yes. It’s been a beautiful exercise in trust and hope and the power of community.”
They started selling at pop-ups at local churches, farmer’s markets, and school festivals. Now, they cater conferences, weddings, and have a twice-a-month bundle delivery service.
Lonsbury is searching for a storefront with a kitchen in the back. “I’m always looking and wishing,” she says.
She hopes to open a space where book clubs and ESL classes can meet. “We can’t become someone’s source of cinnamon rolls for their staff meeting, or their Monday bread run until we’re in one place consistently that people can swing by,” she says.
Just Bakery currently has nine resettled refugees on staff. There have been 15 more that were on staff but have moved on to other jobs.
“What really impresses me about Leah, and what resonates, is employment with Just Bakery is not an end point. It’s a first or second stepping stone for refugees and immigrants, maybe to owning their own restaurant,” says Justin Howell, deputy director of International Rescue Committee in Atlanta and Tallahassee. “It helps native-born folks here understand the diversity that does make up our community.”
The non-profit recently received a grant to start an eight-week culinary training program this fall. The plan is to teach basic cooking and knife skills and partner with local restaurants to hire the trainees at a living wage.
“That’s a hard ask in the food business,” Lonsbury says.
Thapa was one of the first refugee trainees hired as a part-time trainee but was quickly promoted to kitchen manager. When the head baker left in January, she filled the spot and now works at least 30 hours a week.
“She learns fast, she’s kitchen and math-savvy, she solves problems and teaches naturally. She’s perfect,” Lonsbury says.
Because of the bakery, Thapa and her husband have been able to afford her 2002 Honda CRV and in April purchased a three-bedroom brick home in Lilburn.
“I like to talk about her as our dream coming true in the world,” Lonsbury says. “This is what we set out to do: to work on the long-term economic security opportunities for folks who have been resettled.”
Before the bakery, Thapa had a variety of jobs, ranging from tutoring in an after-school program to working in a J.C. Penney warehouse.
“It changed my life,” Thapa says. “I can see me working here for a long time.”
Now, she’s considering culinary school — and someday she would like to open her own Nepali-fusion bakery.
“Just Bakery is a great place,” Thapa says, “to get a taste of the world.”