Special helpings: the Glasgow cafe that’s home to refugee volunteers

Eden from Eritrea

A brief lull in afternoon customer traffic settles over Milk Cafe on the southside of Glasgow. It gives manager Angela Ireland the chance to dust the flour from her apron and sit down to discuss the impact that the social enterprise she set up with her friend Gabby Cluness has had on the community.

The Milk Cafe’s main aim is to provide a welcome sanctuary for refugee and asylum seeker women who might feel low in personal confidence or isolated within their community.

The idea is that, as volunteers, they become more integrated and confident, and in turn learn invaluable language, catering and interpersonal skills.

cafepicCurrently, the cafe has 15 volunteers who come in to work or help in the kitchen, waitress or take language classes. Angela is proud of the space they have created, a small yet comfortable venue adorned with elegant and eclectic touches.

She said: “I think because it’s homely that’s why it works. Gabby and I used to live together so it’s mostly our stuff that’s in here. There’s always one of us here, so it feels like home and that’s why I think a lot of the women who come here feel at home as well.”

Angela and Gabby came upon the idea while traveling in South America as students. They noted an unavoidable detachment in language and culture and vowed to ensure that those arriving in Scotland through difficult circumstances would have a place that could bridge such a gulf.

The idea has paid off in quite a profound way for many of their volunteers. It’s especially true for two women, one of whom is now working in a kitchen in a care home and came to the Milk Cafe from Palestine via Romania.

Angela said: “She’s great, she really helped us at the start. She’s very into catering and really creative. She loves coming here and we love having her. It’s so great because she gets to experiment with food here that she couldn’t possibly do at home.”

Another is Eden, from Eritrea, who managed to gain six months’ work and is now studying English through the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) course in college.

Yet, although many of the volunteers go on to bigger and better things, each is still in contact with those at the cafe. Despite the humble nature of the space and its originators, for many women it symbolises something much more grand – it’s become a breeding ground for the idea of possibilities, a kernel of a real future that otherwise might not have existed.

Despite the size, Milk Cafe is now an established business in the southside’s Victoria Road. What they are doing has been noticed not only by the area’s migrant population, but also by indigenous Glaswegians.

bsbosaAngela said: “We get a really diverse mix of customers actually. A lot of people come in and support us because they get what we’re doing, while others pop along because it’s a nice wee cafe.”

One year on from launch, Angela says that Milk Cafe has managed to fulfil all of its initial aims, and she is looking forward with obvious enthusiasm.

“The possibilities are limitless at the moment: maybe getting hold of a catering kitchen. We want to be able to accommodate more classes and workshops. Expansion would be good. We’d just like the space to be bigger.”

The cafe catered a wedding last year and would like the opportunity to do more, there’s also the dream of expanding the concept into a live-in hostel. What also becomes clear is what’s behind all of this: a real desire not just to throw around ideas, but create lasting solutions; coupled with a lack of ego and the absence of the usual drive for profit.

To make a real difference in the lives of those who come to Scotland with hopes of another life might sound a rather sizable responsibility for a small cafe.

Yet Angela genuinely loves this space and what it’s managed to achieve so far. “We’re young compared to a lot of the girls [who volunteer] and they mother us. That’s what’s really nice about it because it’s not like ‘I’ll help you because you need help’, it’s because we need help too.”

As she says this, a customer arrives at her shoulder. It’s someone she clearly knows. Angela quits our interview and is back in her usual place: helping someone.

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