Staffed by people from vulnerable social groups, Cafe Myrtillo, in the Athens district of Neo Iraklio, serves as a model of entrepreneurship and above all, humanity.
The idea would never have got off the drawing board without the financial support of certain individuals. They’ve asked me not to mention their names.
Until last November, 30 year-old Olga was unemployed. I talk to her normally, and she reads my lips before using sign language to explain what the problem was. ‘No employer would hire me,’ she explains. Now she serves tables, runs the buffet, works the till and at long last is paid a wage and social insurance.
He’s already taken ten orders and Aris Bezos still hasn’t taken out a notepad. He doesn’t need one. “I remember everything,” he says.
A few minutes later, he returns with a tray to serve his customers.
“It’s Asperger’s syndrome that gives us such a great memory,” says Nancy. She knows by heart the ingredients to all the recipes prepared in the kitchen. Behind the buffet, Olga is making coffee.
There’s no need to tell her twice how you take it: she may be deaf, but she’s a star at lip-reading. This is the Myrtillo (Blueberry) cafe, a “cafe of the chosen”, as its founder calls it.
Here at the cafe, they only employ members of vulnerable social groups: those deemed as ‘abnormal’ by the ignorant. They aren’t considered competitive on the open labour market and usually find themselves invisible when they look for work.
In a country that only too frequently looks to the past for solutions, teacher Georgia Vamvounaki-Raffan decided to try something new. She found a premises which had been abandoned for years, opposite Neo Iraklio metro station, in northeastern Athens. She renovated the place and transformed it into a pioneering cafe.
For Olga, Aris, Sofia, Damianos, Nancy, Nick, Emilia and the other employees of the Myrtillo, the cafe’s entrance isn’t just a threshold to work and education. “It’s a threshold to life,” says Vamvounaki-Raffan.
“I’m not a businesswoman, and I’m not an economist,” she explains. “In fact, I’m usually completely lost when it comes to financial matters. Our fixed monthly costs are €12,000, but first I pay the employees. Nature made them this way. I have a child with learning difficulties who grew up in Scotland and thankfully never went to Greek school. And I don’t say that to belittle the schools of our country. I’m a Greek teacher after all; I’ve worked in public schools.”
Vamvounaki-Raffan had the idea for the cafe when she was living in Scotland. “My son did a course in catering and then he worked in a cafe. I saw then how other cultures treat differently abled people, and I said to myself that this is badly needed in Greece.
“The idea would never have got off the drawing board without the financial support from certain individuals (the Tima charity was a key donor to the premises’ renovation). They’ve asked me not to mention their names.”
I sink into the sofa opposite the open kitchen. All the dishes served at the cafe are homemade. The apprentice cooks are kneading bread today. Among them is Emilia Kardara, the group’s ‘environmentalist’.
“I’m constantly having to turn off the tap for them. You can’t just leave the water running and waste it like that,” she says. “They look after you better here. I have depression, but I’m treated for it and I’m fine. I have Asperger’s too, and that brings along a whole load of problems. It’s what makes me so talkative, my friend, and obsessive and compulsive too. But those of us with Asperger’s, when we set ourselves the goal of learning something, we do it well.”
“It’s hard to get a job, and if you’re like us, with special needs, it’s even more difficult. It’s important to gain experience and confidence. After this, I’ll be able to spread my wings,” says 23-year-old Sofia Pappas. She’s the secretary of the cafe, and is happy that finally “my knowledge isn’t going to waste. I studied business administration at a private college”.
Half-Scottish, Damianos Raffan is Georgia Vamvounaki-Raffan’s son. “My dream is to go and work in another cafe, as an employee, as soon as I’ve learnt how to do the job properly here.”
When Damianos Raffan goes missing from his post, he’s probably talking to the customers or going for a wander around the cafes next door. “Everyone’s got used to him. He’s very sociable,” says his mother, laughing. “I’m just a little snappy,” adds Damianos.
Unwittingly, he has taken charge of local public relations. He even knows the street vendors by name. I try to work out what is different about him, and then it occurs to me: he’s perhaps the only Greek who doesn’t want to become a boss.
What sets this cafe apart from the rest isn’t just who’s serving, but what is served. Everything here is handmade – even the bread used for sandwiches.
“Our goal is for members of the group to understand that they aren’t passive objects, to be cared for. So I always try to underline individual responsibility,” says Vamvounaki-Raffan. “We all go through a self-assessment process, which includes a questionnaire along the lines of ‘what are your responsibilities?’ and ‘are you fulfilling them?’.”
As she explains, no one is allowed to blame others in the cafe. If a member of staff finds themselves in a fix, they can’t pass on the responsibility to someone else.
Part of the training for staff, aside from the work they do at the cafe, is a program of community engagement. “We’re now starting an initiative with children’s centres and with the day centres for the elderly, whereby our employees will do voluntary work: they’ll make tea for the elderly, they’ll read fairytales, they’ll take them on walks,” explains Vamvounaki-Raffan.
For Nancy Hira, the Myrtillo was the first step to independence. “I’m more responsible, that’s for sure,” she says. At the age of 23, she has learnt to ride public transport on her own for the first time. “I live near Mt Ymittos; it’s far away. I used to come here with my mother. Now that I’ve got to know the best route, I come on my own. I also take the metro, which I like doing.”
Nancy heads the cooking team. “I trained in cooking and confectionery and now I’m training people in the workplace. I’m good at bread. I’ve had a lot of practice at kneading. We make sweets and other things too. Do you like cupcakes? Do come and try some,” she says.
“I have Asperger’s, but it doesn’t bother me as long as I keep calm,” she told me during our conversation. “I’ve got several techniques to get rid of the anxiety.
“I always think of it as something inside me. I’ve loved Asperger’s, I haven’t hated it. I think it’s a mistake not to love something which belongs to you and is a part of your life. You can’t say you hate something you’ve had since you were little, when you know you can’t do anything about it. We try not to let the clouds cover us…”
Just sitting in this cafe charges you up with optimism. As you’re leaving, the employees give you their best regards and ask you to promise that you won’t forget them.
*This is an edited version of an article that was published in the Greek daily Eleftherotypia. Myrtillo Café is located at 6 Plateia 28 October, Neo Iraklio. Tel 211-012-3176.