It's a rainy Thursday night in Sydney's Erskineville and Parliament on King is buzzing. Parents and their overexcited children squeeze around mismatched tables with office workers and students, a waitress teeters between the bookshelves balancing plates of soup, and the tiny cafe hums with anticipatory chatter.
Despite it being midweek on the quieter end of King Street—a stretch of road populated by trendy coffee shops and enough Thai restaurants to feed an army of kitchen-shy bachelors—the onslaught of diners continues until chairs start spilling out onto the pavement.
But dinner at Parliament on King isn't your average meal out. That nimble-footed waitress is a political refugee from Cameroon, and the woman greeting diners at the door fled to Australia from Malaysia last year. Out in the kitchen, the two guys manning the stove have both spent time in detention centres.
Tonight is Local Family Dinner, an initiative that trains refugees and asylum-seekers in hospitality and food preparation and allows them to practise these new skills with paying customers.
"Local Family Dinner is about running the cafe as a social enterprise for that evening," explains Parliament on King owner Ravi Prasad. "We cover the costs but what's left is split between the asylum-seekers that serve and prepare on the night. It's not a handout; they get to work for it."
Every Tuesday, Prasad uses the cafe's facilities to teach asylum-seekers and refugees hospitality skills, including barista training, customer service, and food hygiene. Running for five weeks, the free sessions are overseen by a qualified trainer and provide participants with practical knowledge designed to lead to real employment.
"I've learnt lots of things," says Krish, a refugee from Sri Lanka. "Ravi tells me to ask the customer what they would like and check if it is OK." Krish spent nine months in a detention centre before being moved to Sydney. "Each time you talk with a customer, you improve your English."
For many of the thousands of refugees arriving in Australia each year, language is a barrier not only to employment but integration within the community. "I came here to introduce myself to new people and practise my English," says H., who travelled to Australia by boat from Iraq after he was almost killed in a machine gun attack. "When English isn't your first language, you have to find a way to learn."
Like many visitors to Parliament on King, H. holds a bridging visa that allows him to legally reside in Australia but does not permit work rights or re-entry into the country. "We get the safety and the peace but we lose the freedom," he explains. "We're not free to go anywhere. Work isn't allowed and study isn't allowed." In such a restricted existence, Local Family Dinner functions as a kind of all-in-one job, English language class, and social club.
While the dinner is only in its third week, Parliament on King's training scheme is already having an impact. Prasad mentions a Bangladeshi refugee who found employment at the Royal Randwick Racecourse after completing her five weeks.
"It's a minimum wage job and the shifts drive her crazy, but it's her job and she got that," says Prasad. "It's not just love and peace. It's real jobs."
Aside from practical skills, the training sessions introduce refugees to Australian food and cafe culture—essential knowledge when new to coffee-obsessed Sydney. "You get to know a country and its rituals through food," says Ravi. "The dinners became a natural extension of that."
But tonight isn't about barbeques and skinny soy lattes. At each Local Family Dinner, Prasad encourages a member of his team to serve a dish from their home country. This time it's Krish's turn and his Kiri Bath curry with banana leaves looks surprisingly at home on the Willow pattern china.
The camaraderie that sparks from sharing a home-cooked meal soon starts to show. Besides the overflowing dining area, Parliament on King's kitchen team is bolstered by enthusiastic volunteers and diners are keen to chat with their unconventional wait staff. As one woman leaves, she insists on paying double the meal's set price.
"I really thank God that everyone is so understanding and friendly," says Natasha, the host who greeted diners and a recent graduate of the training course. "I don't have any fear when I am here."
The cafe's welcoming vibe is a far cry from Prime Minister Tony Abbott's aggressive "Stop the Boats" mantra and the anti-immigrant stance that infiltrates much of the Australian media. But aside from the occasional "bizarre phone call", Prasad says the reaction to Local Family Dinner has been almost entirely positive.
"You look at the paper and read these horrible things, but refugees and asylum-seekers are people, not headlines," he says. "For things to change, all it takes is getting to know these guys as equals. That's what we want to achieve."
If the happily exhausted staff and stacks of clean plates are anything to go by, Parliament on King is well on the way to achieving that change.