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This Glasgow Cafe Brings Female Asylum Seekers Together with Soup

Two graduates have set up a cafe in Glasgow to help female asylum seekers build new connections through food. When I visit, the specials are mackerel tart and lentil and coconut soup.
June 18, 2015, 10:00am
All photos by the author.

It's the first day of summer and the South Side of Glasgow simmers under what feels like a long forgotten sun (it is Scotland, after all). As I navigate my way down the Victoria Road along rows of independent shops, a cornflower-hued frontage stands out. The only other clue to the cafe from this vantage point is an unimposing chalk board detailing its specials. Today's are mackerel tart and lentil and coconut soup.

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Ducking indoors, I'm greeted by a spacious interior with white walls and leafy hanging baskets. Milk, a cafe aiming to provide a safe space for female asylum seekers in a socially conscious business model, has only just opened to the public.

READ MORE: A Sydney Cafe Is Turning Asylum Seekers Into Servers

"We want to help expand people's networks socially, as well as allow a person to pursue any strengths they might have, like cooking," explains Angela Ireland, who started Milk with Gabby Cluness. "We'd love to host dining nights where we can structure the menu around what people would like to make."

As recent graduates, the idea to open a socially conscious cafe came to the pair with the looming prospect of finding a "proper job."

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The daily specials at Milk cafe, Glasgow. All photos by the author.

"We taught English in South America, Mexico, Colombia. We did some soul searching," says Ireland. "We really enjoyed cooking food, but it's not quite enough. We thought, Why don't we do a job where we put the money back into the business? We thought we'd invented social enterprise, but it turns out that's a thing."

Despite not inventing social enterprise entirely, Ireland and Cluness were spurred on by the idea. It was volunteering back on home soil which confirmed why a cafe should be their first project.

"When we were at Bridges Programmes [an initiative that supports asylum seekers in Glasgow], to bond and get to know each other, we all ate together. Volunteers and participants," says Ireland. "Everyone was talking about the food from all over the world that we liked to eat. At the end of the day, despite how we arrived here, we're the same."

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I'm not saying we're providing a solution to people—the problems are huge sometimes—but it's a period out of their day when they can come and through food and companionship, become more than an asylum seeker.

It's this global influence that will be reflected in the dishes Milk provides. In addition to incorporating suggestions from asylum seekers' home nations, the Latin influences from Ireland and Cluness' time spent in South America will be present.

"We are still working out the menu and at the moment but current staples include the frittata, French olive cake, hummus with roasted veg, and huevos ranchero," explains Ireland. Next month a South Indian themed night is set to be the cafe's first pop-up dinner event organised by a volunteer.

When the pair began searching for suppliers, they found them on the cafe's doorstep. Milk's fruit and vegetables are sourced from nearby co-operative Locavore, their cakes are made with dry goods from another local co-op Green City, and a similarly community-minded baker from a few doors down provides the bread.

"Matt Fountain has just started Freedom Bakery. Matt goes into a local prison and trains up prisoners with transferable skills through baking," explains Ireland. "It seems like this area in particular is on the move with people doing nice things."

Gabby Cluness prepares coffee at Milk cafe, Glasgow. All photos by the author.

Gabby Cluness prepares coffee at Milk cafe, Glasgow. All photos by the author.

While the cafe is open to all, the pair wanted to provide particular support for women, something they feel is lacking in other refugee services.

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"I taught an English class here," says Ireland. "It was open to everyone, and two women came for the whole nine months I was there, the rest were men. I don't know why exactly, and I don't want to speculate. The two women when they did come were particularly quiet."

For Cluness, the experience working in a night shelter that only accommodated male asylum seekers highlighted the need for ventures like Milk.

"People are facing bleak circumstances, they're homeless and have no access to any money. That's as really a shit time as you can possibly have," she says. "I'm not saying we're providing a solution to people—the problems are huge sometimes—but it's a period out of their day when they can come and through food and companionship, become more than an asylum seeker."

When the training programme starts, it will involve six month placements. The ultimate aim is to create a ladder, whereby a volunteer would train up a woman on the programme. When that person has completed their placement, they will train up the next person.

READ MORE: What It's Like to Cook in a Syrian Refugee Camp

"It will work like a buddy system. The idea is that it's not always going to be us running the cafe," says Cluness. "It would be so cool if it was an asylum seeker who was then a refugee, who then took over, that would be amazing."

As we talk, Milk's customers drop by for coffee, cake, and chats with the owners. Despite being open less than a week, there is already a friendliness and familiarity with the local residents.

"We felt incredibly welcome opening up here, folk were coming past and wishing us well," says Cluness. "It's community minded, and we want everyone to feel they can come in."

With the first referrals imminent, the project will begin to grow, which means Ireland and Cluness putting down roots here for the foreseeable future. As Gabby explains, "I think, without sounding too goody two shoes, when you've done third sector jobs, it's difficult to go back to other jobs. I love waitressing, I love working with people, but with something like this, there's more behind it."