BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tucked away in a mediaeval Spanish square, an unconventional restaurant is training refugees and telling their stories, hoping to change the lives of migrants and how people see them.
Espai Mescladis is both a restaurant and culinary school - and part publishing house.
It trains migrants 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, and 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 in an interview.
With mistrust of migrants 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,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “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 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 migrants, especially in the wealthy region of Catalonia.
Just this month, the Spanish government agreed to take in hundreds of refugees and migrants aboard the Aquarius rescue ship, which had been rejected by Italy and Malta.
Barcelona’s City Council said this week that the Catalan capital would accept 100 of the 629 people on board.
For incomers 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.”
Tucked in the corner of a neglected square, Mescladis is bustling and offbeat. Its walls are hung with photos of those who have passed through its doors, its shelves laden with quirky objects from around the world.
The cavernous building - it was 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 couldn’t 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 told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The international charity Caritas helped him find Mescladis.
“I was like ‘wow’ because it was the only place I could find to work where they didn’t ask me who I was, where I was from or anything,” he said.
Now he enjoys helping others facing the same sort of problems, and showing it is possible to overcome them.
“I like working here, for the human side. At the end of the day, you don’t feel like it’s a job, you feel like it’s a family,” he said.
The team routinely sits and eats together - an important ritual for immigrants excluded from much social life, he said.
As well as breaking down barriers through food, Habiague is keen to tell the stories of the people of Mescladis, aiming to humanize his staff through initiatives such as photography exhibitions and comic books.
A graphic novel, called “A Present for Kushbu”, tells the stories of nine asylum seekers on their often perilous journeys to Barcelona. Kushbu, after whom the book is named, works at Mescladis, as do some of the book’s other characters.
Mescladis is also launching a craft beer this month, which Habiague hopes will broaden the work opportunities for its alumni, in production, marketing and distribution.
Reporting by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.