Home » How One Glaswegian Cafe Is Supporting Refugee And Migrant Women

How One Glaswegian Cafe Is Supporting Refugee And Migrant Women

Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. If you’re a member of one of the Expat Focus forums or Facebook groups, or in any international community group for that matter, you’ve likely seen a discussion at some point around the term ‘expat’, and how it’s used.

What makes one group of people ‘expats’, and another group ‘foreigners’, or ‘immigrants’? Why does this terminology matter, and how does it shape our views of different views of people who move abroad?

Our guest today is Gabby, the co-founder of Milk Café, a social enterprise in Glasgow, Scotland. Milk aims to empower and support refugee and migrant women, who they take on as volunteers. But the café’s not just providing these women with an opportunity to gain new skills and experience. It’s also promoting greater community acceptance and understanding.

Can you tell me, first up, how did Milk Café come about?

Gabby: Well, it started probably from a kind of dissatisfaction that me and Angela had with our jobs, a few years ago. We’d both been working in hospitality, but also in the third sector, and I think we were just a bit exasperated with both types of job, and thought that we would quite like to set something up ourselves that combined the two, and that had a kind of social impact as well, and we had autonomy over it, and could be a bit more flexible with what we did.

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Carlie: Tell me about how you’ve been able to bring your social justice work into Milk Café, and incorporate it into your business model.

Gabby: It’s actually a really good fit. So cooking, and making things, and baking, is a really nice way to kind of allow the women that we work with to do something that they feel comfortable with. It doesn’t need a huge amount of language skills. It doesn’t need training as such, it’s something that a lot of the women that we work with have huge experience with just because of their domestic situations. So, we kind of thought it was a good way to sort of ease people into their new community and into learning new skills, in order for them to get jobs in the future.

Carlie: Can you paint a bit of a picture for me about the types of refugee and migrant women that are coming to Glasgow, and where they’re coming from, what’s their typical situation when they arrive in their new home?

Gabby: It’s really varied, so I’d be kind of wary about speaking for them. In the café we have a huge range of women from different economic backgrounds, different educational backgrounds. Not to mention different locations around the world that they’re originating from.

You know, all of them have in common that if they’re asylum seekers or refugees they’re fleeing a situation of danger, so, that’s the only thing that kind of ties them all together. And then again, we work with migrant women as well, who are here for a variety of reasons as well. Often, they are leaving difficult situations in their country of origin, but also some of them are here looking for a better education for their children, or looking for different jobs.

So yeah, the reasons that people are here are different. And yeah, the type of women that we have in the café are different, like some of them have university degrees and come from professional backgrounds, and some of them have never had a job, and they’ve been carers of some kind since they were young.

Carlie: Now there’s a stark difference of course, when you consider a foreigner like myself who chose to leave my country of origin and start a new life and career abroad. What are some of the challenges faced by the women you work with that many of us take for granted?

Gabby: I think probably attitude of the local population is a huge one. So, I mean I, I’ve done a lot of travelling and you know, even just the language, like, “expats” and you know, “people on their gap year”, or the kind of attitude of people in the countries that you’re visiting I think is very different when you’re sort of a privileged westerner, and you’re someone, particularly who’s visibly from a less affluent country, I would say. So I think that’s a huge challenge.

I think, yeah, the choice is a huge thing, like, places I’ve gone to I’ve gone because I’ve wanted to, and I’ve had the luxury of being able to go home when I want to, and whether you do or not, that’s a huge advantage that you have over someone who cannot go home.

Yeah, and I mean things like, obviously language barriers, like if English isn’t your first language, you immediately have a problem getting your foot in the door of a job. And you know, cultural attitudes, like for example if you wear a hijab, it’s more difficult for you to get a job.

So there’s a lot of, of little things that make a difference, and there’s a lot of really big things. And, yeah, I think it’s completely different. I think, you know, being a Spanish or an English person going travelling and picking up jobs is a completely different thing to, you know, an Eritrean refugee forced to flee to Europe, trying to make a living. It’s, they’re completely different things, but there are shared sentiments, you know, like loneliness and cultural barriers. Those are things that everyone feels when they move somewhere new, so there are ways that you can have common ground, but yeah, you’re right, it’s a different thing.

Carlie: You mention that community attitudes play such a big part. How have you seen the community that is around your café and your customer base really help to support these women and make them feel welcome in the work they’re doing?

Gabby: I think largely it’s been really positive, I think. We’ve had a lot of support from the local community in setting this up, and in maintaining the project. Which indicates to me a certain level of empathy and acceptance for the women that we’re working with.

I think again, there’s a range of people, and the attitudes to them can be different. So, I think we have what I’ll say are more sort of palatable people that we’re working with, that people, you know, it’s just slightly easier to accept into the community, and then there’s more challenging people as well, those are the people that probably have a harder time, like, for example, we work with women. Most of the women that we’re working with have got families, you know, their mental health is reasonable, things like that, whereas I’ve volunteered with agencies before that work with male refugees with quite severe mental health problems, and that’s a much less sort of, palatable is probably the right word, demographic, and I think many people can be quite hostile, without recognising that those people need support just as much as, you know, lovely well-spoken educated refugees.

But largely I think we, in this project, have found people have been very warm and welcoming. We do work with quite a lot of people from the Roma community, and for example, attitudes to them can be very hostile in this area, because of various issues, but that’s quite interesting to see the difference in you know like, [unclear word] attitudes to people, to our refugee volunteers, and those towards our volunteers from a Roma background. So it’s not always perfect, but yeah, largely I think the response has been positive.

Carlie: Gabby, what do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions that people have about migrants and refugees?

Gabby: I think the biggest one is that they are coming here to take something from us. There’s this idea of all these people who are chomping at the bit to leave their homeland and come here, ‘cause it’s so wonderful (laughs). And, you know, access all our free benefits and have a great time. Like that kind of narrative, that particularly gets pushed by the right-wing press, I mean it’s silly.

It’s bad, but it’s also silly, because it’s so inaccurate. You only have to spend 5 minutes actually looking at what’s happening, looking at the financial situation that most of the people who come here are in. You know, you’ve got people who’re in asylum limbo for 10 years, like, with no money, no recourse to public funding, you know, sitting in freezing horrible living conditions, when they just – of course they want to go home, but they can’t, because their lives are in danger, and I think that that’s the biggest misconception.

And with migrants it’s a similar thing. It’s like, it’s this kind of judgment that they’re coming here to take things from us, and it’s like, that isn’t… you know, they’re largely doing the jobs that British people don’t really want to do, contributing to our tax system, you know, putting their kids in schools and some of them are growing up to contribute to our society. So it’s, I think, this narrative of people taking from us is the biggest misconception. And I do find it quite frustrating, but again, I have to be fair and say that we don’t encounter it that much in the day to day running of the café. Maybe online slightly more, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much.

Carlie: How are the women that are working at your café developing and what are they learning and going on to do? Is there a graduation process, or are they just working at the café as long as they need?

Gabby: So again, it’s really varied. Some women will come to us with a really tangible end goal and say no, I want to improve my English, and I want to get a job. So we’ve had volunteers who’ve done that, and they’ve done it for 6 months and then they’ve put it on their CV and they’ve learned how to use the coffee machine, they’ve learned how to do front of house, they’ve learned how to, kind of, do the normal front of house things that you’d expect, and then they’ve left. So that’s like a tangible process that’s easy to identify.

But we’ve also had women who, you know, for whatever circumstance they’re not in a position where they are able to get jobs, like if they’ve got loads of kids, or if it’s going to affect their housing situation, for example. Or they’re in college, so you’ll get women who just want to kind of improve their English and gain confidence. And also sort of get involved in a social network, because I think isolation is a big issue for, well, for lots of people wherever they’re from, but certainly for lots of people who are coming from a different country and are sort of stuck here. It varies, again, from person to person.

But yeah, I mean I think definitely there are things that all of the women benefit from. For example, if English isn’t their first language I think even a couple of months here, that benefits their confidence, if not their actual language skills. Building a network, getting involved in their local community, making friends, whether that’s with people that work in the café, or other volunteers, or the general public, because it’s quite a nice space for that kind of relationship to form, so that’s another way that I think a lot of the women benefit.

Carlie: And what does running Milk Café provide to you and your business partner? What are you getting out of it?

Gabby: I think we get a job that we enjoy. We set it up because we wanted to help people, and be contributing something positive to our community. But we’re not, you know, we’re not angels, we also wanted jobs for ourselves that were interesting, that we could mould into the kind of careers that we wanted, but weren’t able to get at that point.

We both did English Literature at uni and then had just worked in hospitality for years, and in third sector jobs, and we’d volunteered a lot, but particularly within the refugee community, and I think it was just… you know, for us it’s been wonderful, like, we’ve sort of made our dream jobs. So we get that out of it.

But we also have had so many wonderful relationships come out of it. And being able to witness other relationships forming, and I think that’s probably the thing that I certainly – I can’t speak for Angela or the volunteers – but the thing I enjoy most are the relationships that you form with people, and yeah, the way that your mind has expanded by access to all these women with different stories, and narratives, and lives that they’re able to share with you, and that’s pretty special.

Carlie: Is there an especially satisfying moment that you can tell me about, since you’ve been running this café and helping refugee and migrant women?

Gabby: I don’t think there’s just one. I think every time that someone has come to us and been really damaged, and shy, and isolated, and then you’ve seen them do something that is not reflective of that at all 5 months later, that’s amazing.

Like we had one volunteer who was quite timid and had come from quite an unpleasant relationship, and you know, was so nervous when she started at the café and her English was actually very good, but she didn’t think it was, so she didn’t really talk. And she stayed for about a year and a half, and just before she moved, she held a tea ceremony. She was Eritrean and she had a traditional Eritrean ceremony, and she was just like, running, bossing people about, and telling jokes, and just creating this really amazing warm space in the café. And that was lovely, because it was just so nice to see her confident. And I think we all really like it when there’s an exchange, like I think when people first start it can feel quite like we’re like telling them what to do a lot, and sort of spoon-feeding them, and then it becomes glaringly apparent that most of them are far superior cooks, for example, so it’s actually really nice when the tables turn, and…

Carlie: They’re schooling you in the kitchen!

Gabby: Yeah, totally, and it’s really nice, and you can see them sort of going, like, oh God, what are they doing, I’m gonna, and have the confidence to sort of go, that’s not good, come on, I’m gonna show you how to do that properly! That’s a really nice thing as well, to feel that they’re helping us as well, so that’s a nice dynamic.

We didn’t want it to be like, you know, loads of privileged white western women teaching all these women how to do stuff, and being in the driving seat all the time. We wanted it to be an exchange, and it to feel like their café as well, and their project, and that they could take lead of things if they wanted to. And some of them haven’t, because they’re just not in a space that they can do that, but lots of them really have, you know, we’ve had women who’ve put on pop-ups by themselves, from beginning to end. We’ve had women who’ve been in and like, make us sit down, because we look crap, and they think we’re tired, and they just take over, and so it’s not just this thing of like, ‘oh, we are helping these women’.

They help us all the time, and that’s why it’s nice, to be always having to receive help is not a nice feeling, so to be able to come in and go actually, d’you know what, I make a way nicer pesto than you do, I’m gonna show you how to do it; or, you look tired, sit down, I’m gonna do this, it’s a nice dynamic, and I think that’s when it works best.

Carlie: When it comes to long-held beliefs and opinions that many of us have about refugees and migrants, obviously it can be generationally and politically influenced, but what would you encourage people who do have preformed ideas to do to gain a better understanding of these women?

Gabby: I think it would be two things. The first would be stop reading crap news, stop watching crap news, stop receiving this rhetoric of racist bile that is so prevalent in our community, in our society, because it’s not true. That’s one of the really important things that I think actually, you know, a lot of particularly maybe older people, that’s all they know about refugees, they don’t meet any, they don’t have any contact with any. All they see is the Daily Mail, and you know, the Sun, and the way that politicians, particularly in the Tory party at the moment, refer to people, to human beings. So that’s definitely one thing.

And the other thing would be to try and meet people from that background, because they’re like everyone else, some of them are nice, some of them are not nice. They’re just people. And I think like that sounds really patronising, but I think there’s so many folk that actually have never met a refugee, have never really spoken to their migrant neighbour, and if you do that, you know, it’s like any form of prejudice and hatred, I think it’s very hard to sustain when you’re friends with someone from that background, because it’s silly. I mean, silly’s a flippant word to use, but it is, to not like someone because of the colour of their skin, or, you know, whether it’s their sexuality or the fact that they’ve come from Syria where their whole family’s been blown up, like that doesn’t make sense, it’s not rational. And I think most people are basically pretty decent and rational once you have that human contact. I hope so anyway! I like to think that that’s true.

Carlie: Me too!

Gabby: Yeah, yeah. I think it is. And I think we have seen examples of that in here. Again, it’s not a space that people who are possibly very prejudiced would come into, because it probably looks a bit arty and hippyish. I can’t say that we’re kind of reaching people who are really reactionary and a bit like, “ooh, you know, they’re coming here and taking our benefits”, and I do think that some of those people have probably had their views changed a little bit by the women that they’ve spoken to, and the ideas that they’ve taken away from that, and even if that’s just one or two people then that’s great.

Carlie: That’s it for today. If you’d like to continue the conversation, or ask Gabby any questions, head over to expatfocus.com and follow the links to our forums and Facebook groups. You’ll find more episodes about all aspects of expat life at expatfocus.com/podcast, or through your favourite podcasting app. If you like what we do, please leave us a review, and I’ll catch you next time.

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