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Undoing the false narrative on the refugee crisis, one coffee at a time

Usman Khalid left Pakistan for religious reasons. If he had not managed to enter the UK, being sent back home would have meant death. In 2019 he started Haven Coffee, a place he hopes will undo the negative stereotypes surrounding refugees.

I love the smell of good-quality coffee. When I came to the UK, I loved the coffee culture and the pub culture. I loved the small, classic-style cafés with people sipping on coffee, chatting with friends, having a croissant, that kind of stuff.

A culture where, in the morning, people grab a takeaway coffee, in the afternoon they come in with their friends, and in the winter there’s a different mood – they become a bit more festive. I love the interior, the seating and the ambience.

The mission of Haven Coffee is very simple. The idea is to serve Fairtrade, organic, specialty coffee, with a social mission of breaking the false narratives in society around refugees.

The obvious misconception is that refugees and asylum seekers are a burden on society. However, they are not – they are very talented people. They are doctors, engineers, artists.

The other big misconception is that these refugees are going to come and live on benefits and they are not going to work and they are not going to contribute to society. Refugees contribute a lot to society. There are so many success stories.

The other misconception is they are not very well educated, they don’t know how to live in society, they just want to live in ghettos and their own communities. That is also not true. The refugees who come want to mix in society, they want to be given a proper chance and given a proper welcome.

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We want to tell people that there is no harm in welcoming more refugees to this country. There is no harm in sharing with these people because they are human beings like anyone else.

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I also believe that, regardless of borders, this is a planet we all share and we should respect each other and welcome each other regardless of skin colour, regardless of the language, and if someone has issues and problems, instead of blocking the borders, we should open them. Many of these refugees don’t come here by choice, they come here because they don’t have any other choice.

My story is a bit different. This is a misconception: people think we only come from countries where there is a war. War and unrest is just one point on the UN website on the basis you can apply for asylum. My case is on a religious basis.

The name ‘Haven’ is because we welcome everyone

The penalty if you leave your religion in a country like Pakistan is death. I only applied for asylum after some time when I had no other choice. Applying for asylum doesn’t mean you will get approved – if you are declined they will send you forcefully back to your country, which in my case meant death. I was scared.

I came here through a proper channel. I applied for a course as a student but then I got misguided by so many people. People took advantage of me because I was new and alone, so I had a tough time – seven or eight years living without proper papers.

I didn’t apply for asylum because I wasn’t sure they would give me it. Once they took me to detention I had no choice but to apply for asylum.

It’s basically a prison. It was terrifying and stressful. I didn’t know when I would be released and my life was on hold. I knew that once I was free I needed to do two things: get my life back on track and use my experience of being locked up to campaign for an end to detention.

In 2016, I got an MSc in marketing and I worked with Counterpoints Arts and got work in the charity and refugee sector. I landed a job at Music Action International and on the side I wanted to start something of my own.

Then, through TERN [the Entrepreneurial Refugee Network], which supports refugees to start their own business, I got on their Ice Academy programme. I learned the basics of business and then the second part was to start one up.

In February 2019 I started Haven Coffee. I was doing weekend market stalls and different events and charities. I wanted permanent space as soon as possible but the pandemic stopped that.

Earlier this year I applied for the Mayor of London’s back to business crowdfunding, which helped me raise the money for my first premises [on St Mary Road, London].

Our first priority is always, always, always the quality of the coffee. That’s why this shop doesn’t look like a social enterprise. The shop looks like a café which happens to have a social mission.

No-one can tell we have a social mission until I start speaking and start telling them, but of course the social mission is also very important to me.

The name ‘Haven’ is because we welcome everyone. It’s a haven, it’s a shelter for everyone.

At the moment, it’s just me, getting up at 5am and getting home at 7pm while I work out the income. Hopefully soon, I will be able to give paid barista training to other refugees to help them become employable. Then we can open market stalls and give them to the baristas we’ve trained.

Then hopefully we’ll take over the world, or at least take over Starbucks and Costa.

Usman Khalid was speaking to Becky Barnes.

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