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Employment

‘I see my father in them’: How one small tea shop plans to empower 1,260 refugees

For refugees fleeing war and persecution, it can be an uphill battle to come off benefits and find stable employment. Here’s one project making a difference

When Pranav Chopra migrated to New Zealand with his family in 1995, he saw his father, a highly skilled aeronautical engineer with over 25 years of technical work experience, face unemployment.

“My father struggled integrating with the locals and settling in his new home as he constantly got rejected from all levels of jobs, even much junior to his level of calibre and experience,” Chopra told The Big Issue. 

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An alien in this new country, his father lacked local work experience or a New Zealander to vouch for him. He also had an Indian accent, and like many migrants had to contend with discrimination.

Now, as an adult living in the UK over 20 years later, Chopra sees other migrants, refugees and asylum seekers facing these same challenges. It’s why he set up Nemi Teas, a specialist tea company that provides employment for refugees in the UK.

“I constantly see my father in them,” he says, referring to the refugees he and his team have supported into paid employment in the hospitality sector.

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Founder of Nemi Teascool ok Pranav Chopra moved with his family to New Zealand as a child, exposing him to the barriers faced by migrants and refugees to finding work. Image: Nemi Teas

Due to the barriers presented by language, a lack of local knowledge, and prejudice, refugees in the UK are four times more likely to be unemployed than people who were born here. This is despite the high levels of skills and qualifications many refugees bring with them — 38 per cent of Syrian refugees living in the UK have a university degree, researchers from the University of Oxford have found. 

Chopra set up Nemi Teas and its flagship cafe, Trampoline, to offer training and employment opportunities to refugees who want to work in London’s hospitality industry, an industry in desperate need of new recruits

Restaurants, cafes and bars across the city are being forced to close early, or skip service altogether, as vacancies remain unfilled. Ending free movement with the EU created a shortfall of around 300,000 workers in lower-skilled sectors including hospitality, leading think-tanks UK in a Changing Europe and the Centre for European Reform recently found.

Ashkan Pedramrad, like Chopra’s father, is a highly-skilled, well-educated man, but he has struggled to find work in the UK due to language and other barriers. In Iran, he worked as a senior accountant earning a good salary, however actions taken by the Iranian government forced him to flee to the UK as a refugee.

Arriving in the UK three-and-a-half years ago, he knew little English, didn’t know anyone that could help him, and was unfamiliar with British culture.

Nemi Teas loose tea, biodegradable tea pyramids and chai syrup are available in The Big Issue Shop

Despite this, and not being a naturally “talkative person”, he pushed himself towards a career in hospitality in the knowledge that it would force him to develop his command of the English language.

Pedramrad was sponsored by Nemi Teas to work in one of their 100-plus partner cafes, The Well Bean Co, where he gained some key experience in British cafe culture. 

“Communication with British people is so nice in cafes — they respect you,” he says with a smile. “If they have any ask, for example if they want to buy a coffee, they say ‘please’, ‘thank you’. It’s different from my culture! And it’s one of the most important things to learn in hospitality here.”

Trampoline cafe on Camden Passage, North London. Image: Nemi Teas

From The Well Bean Co, he started working at Trampoline, where he has been the cafe manager for the last three months, earning the London living wage. Looking to the future, he says: “I hope that I can run my own business here, get married and live in safety.”

Nemi Teas’ Changing Journeys initiative has had such success that it’s about to get a whole lot bigger. With a grant of £20,000 as part of Royal London’s changemakers program, the social enterprise plans to expand to 14 sites in the next five years. 

With each cafe expecting to train up to eight people each year, who will go on to get jobs with Nemi Teas’ employment partners, Chopra estimates 252 refugees will gain meaningful work in the five-year-project.

“Given an average of four dependents per person, that would equate to empowering 1,260 refugee lives by December-2028 and contributing £5.90m back into the UK economy,” says Chopra.

At present, asylum seekers are banned from working in the UK, and often face waiting years for a decision from the government on whether they will be granted refugee status. Given the severe shortages of labour faced by industries across the UK, and the potential value they could contribute to the economy, calls are growing to allow asylum seekers to work – though legislation that would have changed the law has been dropped. 

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There’s also the not so insignificant factor that asylum seekers need to be able to support themselves. 

“It’s not fair, the government should let asylum seekers work,” says Pedramrad. “Because imagine, you don’t have money and you are hungry, you have to find a way to eat.”

“It’s better for the government to support refugees, asylum seekers, homeless people, everybody to work.”

Big Issue Group has created the person-centred recruitment service, Big Issue Recruit to support people facing barriers to employment into sustainable jobs. To find out how Big Issue Recruit could help you into employment, or help your business to take a more inclusive approach to recruitment, click here.

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