The last time Sprudge reported on how the coffee world was helping Syrian asylum seekers in the Netherlands, a simple, very human-level initiative was underway. The objective was to pair refugees and longtime Dutch residents with similar professional interests, encouraging the two parties to go on a coffee date and trade career tips. The setting was the Amsterdam Zuid franchise of cafe Anne & Max, which provided free beverages and an inviting third space.
Today, nearly two years later, thanks to a program offered by the Amsterdam foundation Refugee Company, this same segment of the population, which once may have accepted a coffee gratis, is learning how to make coffee professionally. And it is not just any coffee, but specialty coffee by Dutch roaster Bocca.
A nationwide coffee supplier and trainer, Bocca partnered with the Refugee Company shortly after the foundation moved its operations into the Bijlmerbajes in July 2016. The country’s most renowned bajes—local slang for “jail”—had recently been vacated and turned over to Lola, an organization that repurposes empty buildings. Entrepreneurs and small businesses moved in, and alongside their offices and ateliers, Lola birthed various refugee-staffed enterprises, including a hotel, a boxing school, the acclaimed restaurant A Beautiful Mess, and Kahwa coffee bar.
Kahwa was also where Bocca taught the refugees the fundamentals of being a barista. The lessons began in January 2017. Back then, the former prison felt far more spartan, as Bocca account manager Jeroen Vos observed last August.
“You have to imagine that when they started here, there was nothing in this building,” says Vos. “There was no wood, there were no plants, there were no colors. It was cold.”
He was addressing the dozens of people who had filled the half-garage, half-foyer-like space for a graduation ceremony. Sixteen refugees from Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, and Syria had freshly completed the training.
“In five months’ time, they exerted a lot of effort, did a lot of work, and it became a very successful little business here,” Vos adds.
Boris Montanus, Bocca’s head trainer for the project, called the students one by one. Abiding by the community’s convention, he used only their first names. They were handed diplomas and—no Dutch festivity goes flowerless—cellophane cones holding a fuchsia gerbera daisy or pink and white lisianthus. Depending on a recipient’s preference, Montanus spoke English or Dutch, and shared a personal anecdote or accolade about them.
“You were here when the machine broke down, right?” he said to a graduate named Kosai. “He lifted up the cover of the machine and he put his hands inside it, to help,” he explained to the audience.
He described another barista named Rafi: “He was really, really tense every time I tried to examine him, but he kept sending me beautiful pictures of latte art, so I knew he could do it.”
“Samir may be the loudest barista I’ve ever met,” Montanus said, laughing. Turning warmly to the diploma recipient, he added: “Here you are, man.”
Onlookers stood clapping and digitally documenting. Some leaned on the wood furnishings, rudimentary though brightened by photography, paintings, and pillows. Two geometrical pendant lamps twinkled over Kahwa’s two-group La Marzocco Linea Classic and Ceado E37S grinder. Passing through the machines was a seemingly bottomless supply of Bocca’s Fatima espresso, washed Catuai and Bourbon beans from Brazil.
The ceremony dovetailed with a meet and greet, allowing members of the city’s horeca industry to get acquainted with the graduates as potential hires. In intimate group conversations, refugees gave glimpses of their past lives.
“I know coffee. I come from East Africa,” noted a former security guard from Eritrea, while also sharing a newfound appreciation for the drink’s taste. “The way they roast the beans is very nice.”
An Iraqi talked of having had some coffee-serving experience back when working at a shisha lounge, though he lost the opportunity after the venue was bombed. “Alles is weg,” he said—Dutch for “Everything is gone.”
Months after the graduation ceremony, a second group of refugees was in the thick of the barista course. Montanus had just returned from a trip to Ethiopia and was showing photos of coffee. Yosief from Eritrea and Ben from Zambia politely glanced at his phone, though the red cherries and green beans appeared far less exotic to them than to Montanus’ usual Dutch trainees.
“You’ve seen more coffee than me,” said their teacher, reminded that at Kahwa he could usually zoom through the course’s agricultural history, given the students’ backgrounds. Anyway, demanding more visual attention that day were the steamed milk hearts that Yosief and Ben were working on.
“First, swirl. All the bubbles out.”
“Start high and then bring it low in one go.”
“Most Dutch people will find this to be too little milk.”
The constant feedback had a positive effect on the forms appearing in the foam.
Kahwa was as hospitable a place as it had been in the summer, but the sun set early during these fall afternoon lessons. The season’s quickly cooling temperature made attendance seem like even more of a commitment. Many visitors would reach the Bijlmerbajes by metro. The stop is about a 15-minute walk from the Refugee Company’s headquarters, though arriving as such means having to follow an awkward path. It is so narrow that two pedestrians can barely pass each other without one having to step off the pavement into the marshy flora. On wet days, small black slugs speckle the way. Should anyone forget that the hunkering six towers once housed the country’s most notorious convicts, the moat and the concrete wall serve as reminders.
The barista class met twice weekly, but it had to be woven into the time-consuming bureaucratic requirements that asylees must simultaneously navigate. Ultimately, they are expected to pursue Dutch language and integration courses, settle into permanent housing, and secure work. Behind the bar, students had to demonstrate the ability to pull an espresso, steam and pour milk, clean an espresso machine, and dial in a grinder. A form hanging on the wall listed these skills and, if they struggled, “we just did it again and did it again,” Montanus said. “It was a bit like pre-runs for a barista competition.”
Besides common English and Dutch words in “hospitality slang,” as another posted printout termed them, the trainees were kept up to speed with specialty coffee lingo (the synonym-spawning flat white was particularly conducive to quiz material).
In December 2017, Yosief, Ben, and two Syrian classmates had their own graduation. That made for a total of 20 refugees who, within the year, completed the training with Montanus or his former Bocca colleague, Jasper de Waal.
One especially passionate diploma-holder was Rafi, the tense yet talented latte artist Montanus had praised at the August ceremony. When Sprudge caught up with him half a year later, the 24-year-old was balancing intensive Dutch classes with work as a part-time barista and waiter at Restaurant Merkelbach.
“Bocca gave me everything to really make me a barista, so I can say that I’m really a barista,” he says, sipping an espresso at Merkelbach on a day off.
Before moving to the Netherlands, Rafi had what he described as an internship with Costa. But before transitioning into a job with the multinational coffee company, he had to flee, leaving his hometown of Lattakia, Syria. After finishing his current studies, he hopes to attend hospitality school and pursue a career in coffee.
“I want to have my own cafe. That’s my dream,” Rafi says. Ideally, he added, his business would yield a whole chain of cafes, spanning the Netherlands, Lebanon, and one day, Syria, too.
In the meantime, a new hospitality course for another group of refugees has begun at the Bijlmerbajes. Bocca continues to provide the barista training, though Kahwa as its own entity no longer exists. Earlier this year, the bar merged with A Beautiful Mess and reopened in March as part of the restaurant’s vibrant renovation.
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.