The owner of a Walthamstow coffee business that helps refugees tells James Cracknell about the idea behind it
Usman Khalid believes there’s more to a cup of coffee than simply great taste. He wants to harness the social benefits of ‘coffee culture’ and use it to help marginalised people.
Specifically, Usman wants to help refugees overcome some of the challenges they face when they arrive in the UK – the same challenges he had to overcome himself after arriving here from Pakistan in 2007.
After securing his own refugee status in 2015, Usman decided to set up a social enterprise based around using great coffee to boost the aspirations of refugee artists, while giving them new skills and helping them integrate into society.
Usman told the Echo of the idea behind his business Haven Coffee: “I developed a liking for coffee over the years, but I added the social aspect into my business model as well.
“We are a social enterprise selling Fairtrade coffee with a social mission of supporting refugee and migrant artists by doing different events and promoting their artwork.”
Before the pandemic, Haven Coffee was hosting regular events such as art exhibitions and comedy nights, including a big stand-up night headlined by Nish Kumar in King’s Cross last December.
“Because of Covid-19 it has been slow to get going again, but we hope to do more events in future.
“The other way we support refugees is to provide barista training. We want to help them integrate into society.”
Usman says that one of the biggest barriers for refugees once they arrive in the UK is learning English. “Language is a big problem and a lack of knowledge of the system of this country also makes it very difficult.
“There are not enough organisations working against the narrative that refugees are a burden and they don’t have any skills. They bring so much with them – some are doctors! Instead of treating refugees as not knowing anything, we should see what they bring to society. Sometimes they do need help to learn English but they have other skills that we can benefit from.
“We have to challenge these false narratives. When I got refugee status I went for a job at [sandwich shop chain] Subway and the manager didn’t believe I had the right to work here, even after I showed her my card. I think this happens all the time.”
Usman became a refugee himself after he began fearing for his life. “I believe in freedom of expression and freedom of thought but if you renounce your religion in a country like Pakistan you literally have no future there – the next step is the graveyard. So I had to leave.”
Before setting up Haven Coffee, Usman worked in marketing at a refugee charity, where he said he “learned that art and culture is a doorway to entering and integrating into society”. It was this which gave him the idea to start Haven Coffee.
After launching initially as a mobile shop, selling coffee at weekly markets around East London, including Walthamstow Sunday Social, and at events such as Walthamstow Garden Party, Usman says the next step is finding a permanent space to trade.
“The Mall [in Walthamstow] is going to re-open its food hall and I have been wanting to get a kiosk there on five or six days a week. My target is to secure a permanent location, and ideally get a shop. There are already a lot of cafes in Walthamstow but let’s see how it goes. I want to use the shop as a gallery as well, to display artwork on the walls.”
In the meantime, Usman is working on building the Haven Coffee brand – a task helped greatly by his recent award from UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs. “I’ve started selling our own-brand coffee bags online and I want to expand the website and marketing.
“I am borrowing a coffee machine at the moment but we launched a crowdfunder to get our own.
“We don’t want to compromise on the quality of the coffee – it is delicious and Fairtrade and sustainable.”
This article is supported by William Morris Big Local in association with UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs. To find out more about UnLtd:
Call 0207 566 1100