'Refugee city' Barcelona puts work for young migrants on the menu

BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Dominican migrant Angel Méndez moved to Barcelona two years ago and couldn’t find a job, his future looked bleak.

Students chat with their teacher at non-profit restaurant El Repartidor in the Barcelona suburb of L’Hospitalet, May 24, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sophie Davies\n

The 19-year-old ended up living in a flat on the outskirts of the city and “doing nothing” for a year, he said. But his fortunes have changed dramatically.

Now he works full-time in the kitchen of El Repartidor, an attractive new restaurant that opened in the Barcelona suburb of L’Hospitalet in April.

Despite its designer appearance and prominent position on one of the district’s main squares, El Repartidor is run almost entirely by disadvantaged young people who are outside the Spanish school system.

The non-profit restaurant is helping unemployed teenagers who don’t have work – either because they just arrived in Spain or quit school – to learn vocational hospitality skills.

Teenagers like Méndez normally move to Spain with another family member who migrated for economic reasons, or to be reunited with them after several years apart, said Borja Castellet, a project manager at the restaurant school.

It is one of several initiatives migrants and refugees can turn to for support in the Catalan capital which is vocal about its desire to help newcomers.

In February, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Barcelona, calling for the Spanish government to take in more refugees.

The city’s leftist mayor Ada Colau has criticized the government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for failing to meet its pledge to house more refugees.

In 2015 she published a register of families in Catalonia, Spain’s wealthiest region, willing to open their homes to refugees, or simply to help in some way.

Barcelona is “a progressive city which is open and warm towards people coming from outside”, Ignasi Calbó, coordinator of the “Refugee City” program at Barcelona City Hall, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The social inclusion program helps migrants settle in Barcelona, he explained. Its initiatives include Mescladís, a quirky bar and restaurant in the historic center run entirely by migrants.

The scheme also helps refugees find work at the many cultural events that take place across the city each year, including Sonar, a popular electronic music festival.

Among those seeking asylum in the Catalan capital, the largest numbers are from Venezuela, Ukraine, Honduras and El Salvador.

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Other Spanish cities, including Valencia, Malaga, Pamplona, Zaragoza and La Coruña, have also said they are keen to welcome more refugees.

Calbó branded the Spanish government’s system for integrating refugees “a disgrace”. “It... just tries to create a checklist on a screen,” he said.

The government can take up to seven years to process an asylum application, he added.

The hardest part is deciding what to do with those who have had their application turned down after being in Spain for several years, he said.

“They can just become illegal from one day to the next, and then they are rejected from all the services on our program,” he added.

In September 2015, Spain’s conservative-led government pledged to bring in more than 17,000 refugees from camps in Italy, Greece, Turkey and Libya within two years.

Since then, the country has taken in just over 1,300 refugees, its interior ministry said.

Spain has provided “all the means at its disposal” to accommodate asylum seekers, said ministry sources, who did not want to be named.

The government is also working to ensure Spain’s relocation and resettlement commitments - made with other EU states at the height of an influx of people fleeing conflict in the Middle East - can be implemented “within the required time and in the right conditions”, they said.

Last year, international protection was granted to 57 percent of those who applied for asylum in Spain, according to the ministry, up from about 30 percent in 2015.


Some of the students at El Repartidor have been “brutally abandoned” by the school system, and many have “very complicated lives and difficult situations at home”, said Begonya Gasch, director of the charitable foundation El Llindar.

It set up the restaurant school with financial support from the local government and Catalan bank La Caixa.

El Repartidor, which translates as “The Delivery Man”, is located in a former post office building in a quiet, leafy square that also used to contain important public fountains.

“We like to say that the square began by delivering water, then letters and now opportunities,” said Castellet.

The working class area of L’Hospitalet, which has a large immigrant population, is better known for its high-rise apartment blocks and transport thoroughfares.

“The school receives a lot of young migrants that have just arrived – and arrived by the worst means,” Gasch said, noting that many come from North Africa or Latin America. “Schools are not responding to what they need and they are also unprepared to enter the world of work.”

Spain has the second highest unemployment rate in the EU after Greece. One in five Spaniards aged under 34 is not in work, education or training, according to official statistics.

Unemployment has fallen since a peak in 2013, but experts say temporary contracts are making the job market less secure.

The school tries to give young people hope for a better future and stop them ending up on the street, said Gasch.

“We can’t change their lives, their situations... but we work so that they take charge of their lives and see themselves as something other than victims,” she said.


Limited access to housing is another challenge refugees face when they arrive in Barcelona - the most expensive city in Spain to rent.

“We have a city that is tourist-wise very, very successful, and it has created a problem with housing. The rental price of flats is unbelievably high now,” said Calbó.

Rental prices in Barcelona in the first quarter of this year were 19 percent higher than in the same period last year, according to real estate website Many refugees and poor migrants simply cannot afford to live in the city.

In the short term, projects like El Llindar can help Barcelona-based youths like Méndez find their feet in Spain.

“I’m really enjoying doing this and I can see myself working in a good restaurant in future,” said the budding chef, who has already interned at one of the city’s upmarket eateries.