Helping hands: EDWINS founder travels the world feeding refugees

Chef Brandon Chrostowski started EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute in 2013 with a mission to help returning citizens find and develop new career paths in the restaurant industry. Two years later, he started the Second Chance Life Skills Center in nearby Buckeye, followed by an entire campus in the neighborhood with dorms, a gym, and other amenities. Last year, Chrostowski opened a Family Center with free childcare for EDWINS students.

And that’s just what Chrostowski has done in Cleveland to help those who need a second chance at a productive and fruitful life. When he’s not running the restaurant, mentoring his students, feeding more than 150 people each week experiencing homelessness in Cleveland, or paying cash for guns to get weapons off the street, Chrostowski is traveling the world—lending his talents and services to those most in need.

He went traveled to Poland twice—in 2022 and 2023—to feed Ukrainian refugees displaced by the war with Russia, and went to Israel in October 2023 to cook for refugees.

It has been about four months since Chrostowski has offered his culinary expertise to help others in need. So in December, he began planning a trip to Djibouti, Africa to support refugees there.

Brandon at a market in DjiboutiBrandon at a market in DjiboutiOn Friday, Feb. 2 Chrostowski boarded a plane for Djibouti to again assist people in need. This time is was Ethiopian and Somalian refugees in Ali Addeh. Djibouti hosts more than 23,000 refugees who have fled from civil war violence and political unrest in their homes countries—mostly from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Yemen. Ali Addeh host about half of Djibouti’s refugees.

“It's terrible, man,” Chrostowski says of the unrest and famine. “They're trying to get people to come back to Somalia because this war is coming towards the end. But some of the byproducts of civil wars—like famine, the food chain, and the way things are structured—kind of go by the wayside. So that's what they're expecting here now in Ethiopia and Somalia. So, some people are staying put. They're not going back.”

“I just want to cook,” he says. “Not just to serve, but to show that all humans—regardless of race or religion—need support.

Chrostowski says he felt moved to go to Djibouti

“I saw what was happening and I said I have to help, I have to do all I can,” he says, noting that he’s working solo on this mission, with the help of his contacts in Djibouti.

“I traveled to Africa and elsewhere to serve those with the least, to cook in places that have lost it all. This is where the power of food makes the biggest impact and where I feel the most useful.”

On the way to Obock, with the red sea and yemen across the wayOn the way to Obock, with the red sea and yemen across the wayAfter a 25-hour flight to Djibouti, with a layover in Ethiopia, Chrostowski spent the first two days of his 10-day trip getting clearance to visit the refugee camps and shopping for food.

“On Saturday we just kind of got lay the land, talked through a plan, and got ready on Sunday,” he says. “Africa is a verbal culture—everything's in person and you have to talk. We had to meet with one interior minister and then another person, talk about what we're going to do, what we're trying to do, and then got the approval.

“And then shopped,” he continues, “going to these markets to open-air markets and wherever else to obtain the food.”

Chrostoski says he just brought the bare necessities and made do with what he was provided while there. “I am traveling light, I have my knives and the will to work hard,” he said before he left. “I am funding this out of pocket.”

On Monday, he set out of the Obock region, about four hours outside of Djibouti, but had to turn back because of an epidemic in the camp that had already taken the lives of two people. He and his team set out the next day for Ali Addeh, and successfully set up camp.

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.