Haitian Refugee Accomplishes a Lifelong Dream of Opening a Restaurant

During this year's Black History Month, we at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, celebrate the accomplishments and successes of Black refugees throughout the United States, while recognizing the obstacles they face, and honor the traditions and culture they bring to their new communities.

Award-winning Chef Juliano Jean Jules's dream of opening a restaurant comes true after a lifelong journey from Haiti to the United States.   © UNHCR/Juliano Jean Jules

For many refugees, the United States is viewed as the land where dreams come true. For Juliano Jean Jules, a Haitian refugee who now calls Battle Creek, Michigan, home, the United States was “the land flowing with milk and honey.” From his humble beginnings in Haiti to meeting his wife of 26 years in New York City, to raising three children and opening a restaurant, Island Style BBQ, in Michigan, his success story represents a realization of the American Dream: one of grit, perseverance, and family.    

Growing up in Haiti, cooking played a central role in everyday life. “When I was growing up, I had to find a way to cook food for my sisters and brother and a few cousins that were living with us,” Juliano said. Together with his cousin, they would cook up recipes for the family to try. “We always talked about opening up a restaurant. We’d cook a lot of fish and rice and beans. Our favorite thing to make was something we called Legumes.”

While the dream of opening a restaurant took root, the conditions of life in Haiti began to deteriorate. The political tensions in the country led to an increase of Haitians fleeing for political and economic reasons. Juliano became one of them and sought refuge in the United States, first arriving in Florida, then migrating to New York City, and finally settling in Battle Creek, Michigan, known as the home of the Kellogg Company. “The most challenging part of leaving Haiti was leaving my parents,” Juliano said. While he has been able to communicate with them via phone or Zoom calls, they have been unable to travel to the United States. His wife Daleth, an immigrant from Guyana, and his three children have never met them face to face. “We’ve been married for 26 years. I’ve never seen my in-laws in person,” Daleth said. “They speak about how even though the kids are grown, they long to hug the kids. Virtual communication is not the same.”

Juliano’s uncle lived in New York City, and so his journey led him to the Big Apple where he met his wife at a block party in Brooklyn. “Our first date was at a Wendy’s,” he said with a laugh. “He did cook for me several dates after that and I recognized he was a great cook.” Daleth chimed in. Juliano continued to hone his skills throughout his time in New York and finally in Michigan. When Juliano and his family moved to Michigan his mother-in-law wanted to open up a business. “I wanted to open a restaurant, but she said it would be too hard,” he said. Still, the dream lived on and some 20 some years later, Juliano is set to open his first restaurant, Island Style BBQ, in the spring of 2021. Of the recipes he’s created for the menu, where he infuses traditional American barbeque with a Caribbean twist, he foresees the brisket to be a best seller. “I love to make different things, but the brisket and the jerk sauce are going to be popular.”

Juliano aims to infuse traditional American barbeque with a Caribbean twist.  © UNHCR/Juliano Jean Jules

While the restaurant he dreamed of owning as a kid in Haiti is materializing decades later in Battle Creek, in between he was able to raise a family that prides itself in their multiculturalism. “They get the best of both worlds. They can brag that Dad is from Haiti, mom is from Guyana, and they’re American. They’ve come over the years to appreciate that,” Daleth said. Much like Island Style BBQ, they are a traditional American family with a Caribbean twist. During Christmas, they cook Guyanese and Haitian foods, such as Tassot Cabrit, a Haitian dish consisting of goat meat marinated in citrus, which is then braised and fried. Yet throughout the years Juliano and Daleth have also learned to cook classic American foods like macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, and chicken tenders. “We’ve kept our own culture, and we’ve infused it with American culture because of the kids and because this is our new home,” Daleth said.

Battle Creek seems like one of the most unlikely places for a former refugee to call home. A small city with a population of about 51,316. But the town has embraced the multiculturalism Juliano and his family have brought to the area. “Even though they know Juliano is a refugee, we feel such warmth and support and especially from the city of Battle Creek,” Daleth explained. “The small business development folks have wrapped their arms around us and have been with us every step of the way. Without them, we couldn’t be.”

And so, a Haitian refugee achieves the American Dream together with his wife and their three children: a prime example of a Black refugee giving back to their community.