A WOMAN from Shetland is starting up a new café in Glasgow’s south side to work with female asylum seekers and refugees to help them integrate into society.
Gabby Cluness, who grew up on the West Side of the islands, has teamed up with a friend, Angela Ireland from Inverness, to get the social enterprise project up and running.
After spending the past year or so looking for a suitable venue, last week the pair received confirmation that they are able to use a venue in the city’s Victoria Road. The café is to be called MILK, and they have started a fundraising effort to help with the start-up costs.
Both women have been working voluntarily with asylum seeker communities in Glasgow and were also interested in running a café – but didn’t want to run a ‘business’ business.
Many of the asylum seekers they have encountered are “incredibly interested in food”, and starting up a social enterprise seemed like it would be “a nice thing to do” for all concerned.
Gabby, 29, says the multicultural area – home to lots of Roma people, migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers from across the world, including East Africa and Middle East trouble spots such as Syria and Iraq – is a “really vibrant part of Glasgow”.
Volunteering with The Bridges Programme – set up to respond to growing racial tension in the city – allowed her to gain an understanding of how many women “really don’t have means of integrating into their near communities”.
“We want the café to be a place in the community for people to become familiar with people who have experienced being an asylum seeker or refugee,” Gabby says.
“Through that familiarity they will hopefully start to question some of the negative stereotypes around immigrants and realise that people come to the UK for a million different reasons, almost all of them legitimate.”
In addition to providing a social space, the aim is for the café to provide work placements giving women experience working in hospitality. Asylum seekers are not legally allowed to work in this country while awaiting assessment, so any hours they put in will have to be voluntary.
“We need to make sure that it’s an exchange and they’re getting stuff back – it’ll be quite short hours per week, it’ll depend on the individual,” Gabby says.
“We’ll have customers coming in who have money to spend. There’s lots of stuff going on in Glasgow at the moment to support refugee and asylum seekers – lots of sustainable food projects, art, music and things going on, so it’d be nice to have it as a communal space after trading hours that people can use.”
Gabby hopes the women will be able to develop their language skills, grow in confidence and start feeling like they are part of the community.
“A lot of them feel really isolated, particularly the women. They face so many financial restrictions. I’ve travelled loads and you go and have a coffee somewhere, go and see a concert… all these things cost money and you just can’t do them if you’re an asylum seeker, and if you’re with bairns as well
“Also there’s obviously a lot of negative feeling towards them, which is a huge issue, though I’d say less so in Govanhill than other places.”
Bridges Programme director Maggie Lennon, who has been advising Gabby and Angela off and on about their idea, said she thought it was a “brilliant” project.
“They’ve been volunteers with Bridges for quite a while as part of our volunteer mentor network for women,” she says, “so I think that’s where they got a passion for helping asylum women. They’ve taken their time to get the right venue, and they’re super-excited.”
Because of legislative changes, many asylum seekers’ cases are heard quickly and they are then given refugee status, but “some women are left in the system for a long time”, leaving a gap in projects to help them, Lennon says.
“My understanding is that they [Gabby and Angela] have lots of women helping to look at different recipes, it’ll be a safe space, a commercial business in a good part of the city… and not just a café but [a place for] all sorts of other events.”
Lennon says that, with Glasgow having been receiving asylum seekers and refugees for over a decade, the community is now “much more open and accepting”.
She adds that the city has “stepped up to the mark” to try and support people fleeing for terror, something that has been heightened by events in Syria in the past couple of years.
While Gabby and Angela have some of their own savings, and have attracted some funding, they have also started a Kickstarter page with the aim of raising £8,000 in time for their launch party on Thursday 4 June, with the café opening the following day.
- You can make a donation to the MILK café here. Among the rewards on offer for making a pledge is “dinner with Matt Damon” which, on further inspection, transpires to be Gabby’s cat rather than the famous actor.