Parliament on King is a homely, comfortable cafe. Coffee is served in vintage mugs and there are shelves upon shelves of all manner of books for patrons to enjoy. People seem completely relaxed in the environment, reclining with laptops or chatting for hours as if in their own homes. However, the cosy interior is also venue to critical social change, with Parliament on King running programs to help asylum seekers learn valuable hospitality and social skills. I sat down with Ravi Prasad, who is one of the cafe’s owners (in fact, it’s run out of his living room!) to talk about the importance of diversity, and the work they do with refugees.
Ruby: Firstly, can you tell us a bit about the work that Parliament on King does for refugees?
Ravi: Sure, we do three things. Hospitality training, which is like cafe skills, such as how to make a coffee, basic OH&S, food safety, food service, customer service, so we teach these skills on a regular basis. And we run a six week course (there’s one going at the moment) which happens on Friday, with between six and twelve students at a time. We’ve been doing that for just under three years.
The second thing we do is teaching people how to do things our way. For example, here’s how you make our coffee, here’s how you make our toast, etc. All the people who come in here are incredibly smart, incredibly intelligent, and they all come from rich, complicated and complex food cultures. So once a month we get them to do something called a ‘local family dinner’ where we get them to cook their food their way.
So we get them to tell us what they’re gonna cook, and they tell us what to buy, they run the kitchen, they run the floor, they run the cafe, and they get paid for the work. It’s a way of generating more work and more experience and opportunities, and it’s a way of getting some money in their pockets. Because the most transformative thing in lives in the asylum seeker and refugee community is when they’re getting paid. There’s something else about that that’s interesting. When you’re coming to Australia you’ve fled for your life, and from your life. You’ve left behind any status, money, resources, networks, friendships, family. So you’re at zero when you leave. For nearly everyone I’ve spoken to there’s been a genuine physical threat to their safety. And then in certain instances you’re on a boat and that can be extremely perilous, and then you’re in detention, and then after the trauma of detention, you’re released into the community and you’re someone’s client. A client of immigration, client of a lawyer, client of medicare, client of Centrelink and you’re quite disempowered, it’s noted you have nothing, and your relationship to Australia is that of someone’s client, and so we try and turn that around, and so instead of you being someone’s client, you’re telling us what to do. It really empowers people in all sorts of ways.
The third thing we do is a social enterprise catering business, where we try and develop people’s skills and capacities. Instead of simply getting them really good at cooking food just for their families, they become really good at cooking for 45-50 people, and then through the catering, good at cooking dinner for nearly 300 people.
So we up-skill people, they produce more food with greater efficiency, without compromising on the quality or authenticity. They then have a commercial skill, they have a food safety certificate (which we pay for, for all of our chefs), they’ve cooked for these dinners, catering events and served at times, three hundred people. That’s a commercially value set of skills. We cultivate a small group of people (we’re only small, we’re tiny in the scale of things). We develop a small group quite deeply, we spend a lot of time with them, as well as a larger group for the training.
Those are the three things we do. We also help with the social outcomes, that is, help with English: confidence and competency in English- getting to know the culture. We also create bridges of understanding and friendship between asylum seekers and refugees and the community: everyone gets to know each other as equals. Prejudices and stereotypes disappear. When you’re sitting across from someone at a dinner table, within ten minutes they stop being an asylum seeker, they stop being a refugee, they stop being Muslim, they stop being Sri Lankan. They’re just another person, a human being, and you relate to them as such. And your attitudes to asylum and refugees change once you’ve met them and know their stories. And those attitudes won’t be the same again.
Hopefully the training makes them employable, but so do the social skills that they learn, and the improvement in confidence and self esteem. A lot of the people that work here-well, some of them can’t work because of their visa status. If you can’t work and you can’t study, how do you give a day meaning and purpose? So this helps give the day more meaning and purpose. There is some benefit as well to their sense of well-being and health, I believe.
Ruby: Why do you feel it is important to change attitudes towards refugees in Sydney?
Ravi: I think it’s self evident. We all saw this poll last week that said 51% of the population were against migration on the basis of a particular religion. And that’s up from 29% or 30% the same time last year. Whether or not that research is accurate, I don’t know, but if it is, it’s frightening. I think it’s self evident why it’s important.
Ruby: Australia has a history of diversity, especially in cities and metropolitan areas, however there seems to be a huge international swing towards conservatism and closing the borders, what do you think the community could do to welcome refugees?
Ravi: We also have a long history of racism. But it’s a good question. I don’t think there is one solution. I think it’s a lot of different things working together. What we try and do here is address the barriers that asylum seekers and refugees face in social, cultural and economic dissipation. But what we’re really doing is creating belonging and inclusion, and that runs both ways. And I think it’s the hundreds and hundreds of small projects like this one, that are working at the grassroots level to create change.
So I would say a simple thing for anyone to do is be a part of those smaller movements. There are a lot of people that are on the frontline (in terms of being service providers) and are really under-resourced. We’re fortunate in so far as we’re a social enterprise, and the dinners and the catering fund the work we do. But a lot of organisations are dependant on grants and private philanthropy and that money is very tight.
Ruby: Why do you think diversity is important to grow and develop a city?
Ravi: It’s all a matter of opinion. There’s a lot of good data, and a lot of good research that talks about the value of diversity as being a driver of innovation, of economic growth and development. So for purely practical and economic reasons, there are many (very old) arguments in favour of diversity. Socially, it’s the same. Diversity increases the texture and the quality of our lives, and the depth of our lives.
To keep up with the amazing work (and delicious coffee) of Parliament on King, check out their Facebook page here. This way you can attend a dinner, like their statuses and check out what they’ve been up to.
They also have a website, which is another great way to keep up with them. You can find that here.
Or keep it simple, and pop in for lunch and a chat. Parliament on King is located at 632 King St, 2043, aka the Bohemian Erskineville side.