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A Great Little Gang Of Humans

Moving to Oxford and working here are kind of melded in my brain. I came to Oxford in 2018 for uni, and it was a whirlwind. It was during Covid, I was in a house with one other person and it was very intense. And I’m quite like, naturally nervously disposed. I guess I'm a little bit of jittery person, or at least I was. I just adjusted well to the hermit existence. When I started here, it was after I finished my fine art degree, and I was looking for something art related to do. It was coming out of Covid times and there was a front of house position going. I was just going around doing interviews, and yeah, I was employed for front of house. 


Since then, I've done front of house, lots and lots of café work and some box office stuff. And then… I don't even remember… maybe last October, I became Café Supervisor. I've also done, erm, there's been all sorts of trainings and I did some murals for the building, like signage murals. But yeah, one of the main things I want to talk about is my relationship with my co-workers who work for Damascus Rose Kitchen.   


It's so valuable to have an organisation employing refugee women in a space like this. It's right in the centre and it's unapologetically not English food, even though it used to be like, fry-ups. For months at the start we had builder-type men coming in and being like, ‘Can I have a fry-up?’ We would say no, and then they'd be like, ‘Why?’ I remember one time someone accused us of being vegetarian extremists because we didn't have a fry-up to give them.    


I sometimes think Damascus Rose are little bit squirrelled away, and they don't get enough of the limelight, but then my other thought about that is, should they get the limelight? Is it fair to be like, ‘You're employed as a cook, but also you need to show off your forced identity as a refugee for customers.’ It’s a messed up sort of dynamic. So in that way, maybe it's good that like they don't have to deal with that and it's just work.   


I feel very privileged to work with these women. And we don't talk about, you know, their experiences of fleeing their homes. That doesn't come up in work-life, that’s in the background. It's stuff like someone saying, ‘Please can you help me with this consent form, because they've asked for my kid’s passport.’ Because they’re still in the process of getting a passport, as you have to be here for like six years to get citizenship. One member of staff was training to be a lawyer before she came here and another has a physics degree from Iran. Just, these incredible lives. In some ways it's really sad, because at the end of the day, these people are working in a kitchen. It's good pay for a kitchen role, but still. Coming straight from my degree and doing customer service, it's kind of like there's that solidarity. So it's really wonderful, and I hope that I've been able to be nice and welcoming, and a little English weirdo to them who they get to be friends with.

   

It’s fascinating, just getting to be a part of their experience and all the challenges they face. And yeah, it's flawed. Basically, all the café staff are white people, and then these secret Middle Eastern women pop out and deliver food, but that's also because no one's explicitly comfortable with working in the café yet, and that is what it is. People I am friends with work in kitchens, and it's always a very intense, loud, chef who tells them what to do, and yells at people, and does drugs on his break, and I'm like, ‘Well, I get to hang out with the loveliest ladies in the world.’   


Hadeel will say a sentence, then sort of take a beat and be like, ‘I said half of those words in Arabic’, and I'll be like, ‘I got the gist, it's fine.’ Or she'll turn to someone else and be like, ‘I want to say this’ and then they'll translate it for me. And I think that’s cool that there is that ability to do communication in a bit of a different way. We get so caught-up in language, but it’s nice not having to have perfect communication. I just love that.   


I come from a little white village near Birmingham, and you know, you move to a city like Oxford where it is also quite white, and I just… it’s eye-opening when you're working with people, especially when their employment is kind of based on their refugee status.   


Since I became the Café Supervisor I do café work all the time. But as I mentioned, before, I was a front of house floaty person, so I would do a decent amount of box office work, which was always fun. You just go and sit down there, and it’s always so quiet and peaceful and you can sort of smell the smells from the market. I’m going to miss the front of house team so much. Just getting to have like a little mini therapy session at lunchtime, with AJ or Jak or whoever's there. Everyone's so lovely and so interesting. They're just a really great little gang of humans. And because it's the Old Fire Station, it attracts lovely arty people who have just really cool hobbies and side gigs. I remember when I joined, like, Tom is an illustrator, then Emma was doing her theatre with Lucy, and everyone's got these things going on and I'm like, ‘Oh, I can do that too.’ And then I did that, I was making art on the side. And yeah, I've painted stuff on the walls here, because they asked me to, and I got paid real money!  


So yeah, this is stuff on the side, like little art bits. So I do comics and stuff, and I've done… oh, actually, one thing that I did love doing, that I found fascinating, was about Storytelling. I was commissioned for one of the Marmalade festivals to make a comic depicting someone's story. It was about this Ethiopian refugee, and I did this story and it was really cool to do, and really interesting and also like, challenging. This person was totally anonymous. So Sarah was like, ‘She’s Ethiopian, she wears a hijab, and that’s all the info we can tell you apart from what's in the story.’ And so it was interesting, to sort of be making this art about someone, drawing pictures of them, without ever seeing them. So that was quite cool and exciting. And also it was interesting to think about how my life would be depicted if they just had this super-vague description of who I am.  


It was really challenging, you know, examining a lot of like your own prejudices and stereotypes. You’re drawing the inside of someone's house and then you're like, ‘Wait. I'm drawing my childhood house.’ So how do I make this the stranger’s house, and what do you assume? In the story she mentions children but never a partner. So I was drawing this house, I was putting little pictures on the walls in her theoretical house, but is there a… do I do a little conceptual husband in these photos? Do I leave that out entirely? How do I imagine these children? It's just all these hypothetical lives, and it was very, very interesting to make it into this like visual thing. Then when the comic came out, someone from Oxford Hub said, ‘I know the person who told that story and she really liked the comic.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God! Thank God!’  


Working here has been really great because it forced me out. I've gotten much more confident, I know how to speak with a little bit more authority, I can supervise others, and deal with difficult situations a lot easier. Before working here, if there was something stressful happening around me I would run in the other direction. Whereas now, if there's like an incident in public and someone's freaking-out, or they’re stressed-out or upset, I will happily go over and be like, ‘Hey, what's happening? I've got water, I've got tissues.’ And I think that comes from working here.   


If I'm meeting someone for the first time I’ll say, ‘Well, I'm quite a shy person.’ But recently I’ve had people saying, ‘Oh really? Are you sure? And I'm like, ‘Yeah. I will happily sit alone for like days.’ But now I also enjoy people, which is great. 

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