Sun, Jun 24, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Barcelona eatery trains migrants, shares their tales

By Sophie Davies  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, BARCELONA, Spain

Tucked away in a medieval Spanish square, an unconventional restaurant is training refugees and migrants and telling their stories, hoping to change their lives and how people see them.

Espai Mescladis is both a restaurant and culinary school — and part publishing house.

It trains migrants and refugees from as far afield as Venezuela, Senegal and Pakistan to cook and cater so they have a better shot at finding jobs and integrating in Catalan life. The interns also get help with asylum paperwork, while customers get insight into what it is to be new, penniless and scared in a strange land.

The social enterprise was founded in 2005 by Argentine entrepreneur Martin Habiague, whose interest was sparked by volunteering with a humanitarian organization in Belgium.

“Immigration has always interested me. I’m a migrant here and my family were immigrants to Argentina from Europe, going back generations,” he said.

With mistrust of migrants and refugees on the rise in many Western societies, Habiague said it was important to stress the positives of incomers who “bring richness to a culture.”

He founded Mescladis in his 30s after leaving consultancy and said he chose a restaurant because food unites people.

“Working in a restaurant is all about action, not words, and so it’s easy to bring people together,” Habiague said. “Also, everybody loves food.”

Each year, about 80 students join the culinary course — known as “Cooking Opportunities” — during which time they intern in the restaurant and at other eateries in the Catalan capital.

More than 1.8 million migrants and refugees have entered Europe since 2014. Greece and Italy receive the most asylum claims, with Spain only receiving a small share of all claims..

However, there is public support in Spain for admitting more, especially in the wealthy region of Catalonia.

Earlier this month, the Spanish government agreed to take in hundreds of refugees and migrants aboard the rescue ship Aquarius, which had been rejected by Italy and Malta.

The Barcelona City Council earlier this week said that the Catalan capital would accept 100 of the 629 people on board.

For newcomers who seek asylum in Spain, applications can drag on for seven years, during which many resort to casual labor or illegal activities like street selling to make ends meet.

It is challenging for newcomers to fend for themselves without any work, Habiague said.

“I was shocked at the treatment of migrants in Europe when I first arrived here,” he said.

Tucked in the corner of a neglected square, Mescladis is bustling and offbeat. Its walls are covered with photographs of those who have passed through its doors, its shelves laden with quirky objects from around the world.

The cavernous building — the birthplace in 1860 of revered Spanish poet Joan Maragall — was long abandoned before Habiague turned it into a restaurant. Now it employs 14 former alumni of the school, as well as a constant flow of interns from the course.

Senegalese-born Soly Malamine, who is manager of the restaurant, completed the cookery course in 2010, after arriving in Spain by boat six years earlier.

The 33-year-old left home because he could not find work and disliked the level of corruption. First he tried construction work in southern Spain before moving north to Barcelona.

“It was very hard finding work when I first arrived here. I was almost a year without work — and I didn’t have papers, which made it more complicated,” he said.

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