Refugees welcome: 
Inside Melbourne's social enterprise Cafe boom

Cafes with a conscience are springing
up around the city. We meet some refugees
on their first day of work

Alhagie had always wanted to come to Australia. The 23-year-old Gambian national dreamed of the opportunities that were on offer here, and gained refugee status a year ago after he finished high school. He is now at university in Melbourne, but his biggest struggle has been finding a job to support himself.

Pavithra, 26, came to Australia a year ago from Malaysia, and faced the same problem. (Both asked for their surnames to be withheld.)

Although both speak very good English and are studying at university, neither has been able to find a job. Finding work is a problem regularly encountered by refugees who have found a new home in Australia, with many employees unwilling to give them a chance.

"I've lived here for almost a year and this is my first time working. I’m pretty excited," Alhagie told Guardian Australia on the day of his first shift at Long Street Coffee, a social enterprise in Richmond, Melbourne. He had applied for many jobs, but without success.

Pavithra also found it tough to get a foothold into the workforce: “For many months I struggled to get a job, and then I got this. I’m so happy.”

Social enterprises aim to make it easier for refugees to get a break.

I've lived here for almost a year and this
 is my first time working. I’m pretty excited

Melbourne is experiencing a mini-boom in food-based social enterprises, with at least 13 cafes up and running, and more planned. You can have a drink in laneway bar Shabeen where all profits go to the developing world, enjoy communal dining in Richmond at Feast of Merit, where profits go to youth education and youth leadership projects in Malawi, Ghana, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Australia, eat delicious native Australian food at Fitzroy's Charcoal Lane, where Indigenous hospitality students are trained, and eat and shop at Collingwood’s Social Studio, where disadvantaged young people are given work.

Kevin Louey, who chairs the City of Melbourne’s economic development portfolio, says: "Melbourne is considered the powerhouse of Australia’s social enterprise scene, and businesses that combine trade with a social purpose add an extra dimension to our streetscape."

Louey believes these social enterprises are a very important part of Melbourne’s culture. “They can be vital, energetic and entrepreneurial. Social enterprises add diversity to the city’s economy, and can provide new opportunities for people who may have been excluded from traditional employment.

The owners of Long Street Coffee, Jane Marx and her husband, Francois, spent three years preparing to open their cafe, using $30,000 of their own money, some cash from a crowd-funding campaign and $10,000 from an Australian Women's Weekly grant.

The idea for the cafe came after the couple volunteered with refugees while they were studying politics at university. Francois helped teach refugees to make coffee, while Jane taught English. They heard many stories of hardships refugees faced when trying to find employment, and wanted to make a difference.

They partnered with the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre to find people to work at the cafe. There are only a handful of requirements: being younger than 30, and having conversational-level English and a willingness to learn on the job. No experience or previous training is necessary.

For Jane and Francois, it's about giving young refugees the same range of opportunities that are available to most other Australians. "We put ourselves through university by working in a cafe, we had to pay our way," Jane said. “It’s terrible to think that the Australian fair go doesn’t extend to everyone.”

It’s a way to give young refugees crucial practical experience on the job. “The ultimate goal is for them to be able to go into another cafe, hand in their resumé, and say they’ve worked here,” Jane says. “People will know who we are and know that we provide really good training, and that will enable them to get a job.”

As the first day draws to a close, Alhagie and Pavithra say they have relished the opportunity, and are looking forward to more shifts. “I enjoyed it, it was a very good experience for us,” Alhagie said. “It’s been a fun day.”

We want to be a place of welcome for refugees and asylum seekers,” Jane said. “The debate at the moment is founded on a fear that derives from ignorance and people are only ignorant because they don’t know refugees, they don’t interact with them, and they’re certainly not served coffee by them. This is our way of standing in opposition [to] that, and providing tangible benefits to young people from a refugee background.

The above article by Denham Sadler first published on in July, 2015.