Café Laziz

ESOL teacher Debra Hill had a better idea for supporting her students to learn English, helping them move from basic questions to meaningful conversations with her fellow residents in St Helens.

Debra was working with refugees – mainly from Syria and Iraq – at a St Helens-based adult learning provider. “The learners I was working with are so nice – they’re really lovely families. But there was so much bureaucracy around helping them integrate and it was almost impossible to help asylum seekers. I was teaching sessions for vulnerable adults, but prioritising learning English was often a struggle: some couldn’t read or write in their own language; some could be moved on with no advance notice and for others, when you’re living on £5 a day, a bus pass that costs £4.60 isn’t always high priority.

“Then, once they’ve had their asylum claim heard, and are given refugee status, they have 28 days to find somewhere to live, get a National Insurance number and find a job. I had to find some way of bridging that gap, and helping them develop employability skills.”

Having worked through a few ideas to support her learners, Debra settled on the idea of a café, to help them develop customer service and employability skills, and use their hospitality and cooking skills to build their confidence. Café Laziz opened in September 2019 and in 22 weeks, has served 620 paying customers, providing 51 children and 82 asylum seekers with free meals.

“It was a question of looking at the skills we already had,” she says, “and how can we use them in this country.”

Taking on the café at a local children’s centre, she worked with learners to develop their customer service skills, and opened one afternoon a week, serving food for the local community. It also has a pay-it-forward mechanism to allow people to pay for someone else’s food, and children eat for free.

“Until recently, St Helens’ population was 97% white British. With refugees arriving in the town, I was concerned that they were being spread around different places, with no focal point to support them,” says Debra.

She worked with her team of volunteers on the design for the café’s logo, which saw it named Café Laziz – in English, the name translates to ‘delicious’. They voted on the design, did some work on their customer service skills, and opened.

“At first, I really struggled to get volunteers to be the cashier and talk to customers about their food,” she says. “But in no time at all their confidence really grew and they’re happy to chat and talk about themselves and their experiences.” Hearing those stories resonated with local residents: “I knew we were on to something when people stopped buying the jacket potatoes, because they were eating Arabic food instead,” she smiles.

There are also cultural differences to overcome. The first time the café opened, the women brought their children to work; now the dads look after the children while the women are working. But the dads have had a taste of life in the kitchen too – they made and served food for their wives and children at the Christmas party.

Debra has been working with the Kindred team since April this year, when we first went into lockdown. ”I’m so grateful to have found Kindred – they have been so helpful and supportive without even being asked,” she says. “They engage with and listen to socially-trading organisations through their ‘conversation’ sessions and work out ways to best help. The workshops offer really useful practical solutions to help socially-trading organisations improve their practices. We’re so lucky within Liverpool City Region to have access to such a great support network – all socially-trading organisations should take advantage of it.”

Debra’s aim is to get her volunteers – who often have low levels of spoken English – to gain more qualifications; they’ve all now achieved Level 2 allergen awareness and food safety certificates, and are working on a customer service City and Guilds qualification. Longer term, she plans to take on a venue where they can meet and train them up as managers, so that the café has more flexibility around its opening hours. “I want them to have something they can take ownership of,” she says.

One of the café’s first volunteers has already found full-time paid work in the food industry, and nine volunteers are engaged currently. One volunteer delivered an impromptu speech at a council grant launch event, whilst another has delivered Arabic drinks and snacks at a regional ESOL conference.

“For some of these women, it’s their dream,” says Debra. “Their education was disrupted in Syria or Iraq before the war, and they’ve had a lot of time since just waiting in Lebanon or Jordan, sometimes in refugee camps. Not having those skills or experience takes a hit on their confidence. This is a direct way we can change that.”