Mike, originally from Syria, is seen here with his partner Carmen. His Zig Zag café, nestled between an art shop and a beauty salon on the high street in Epsom, has become the social hub for the local community offering help and support to refugees and asylum seekers.
Amid an often hostile climate for refugees in the UK, ordinary citizens are plugging gaps in the asylum system, offering spare rooms to refugees in need of a roof over their head, finding landlords willing to rent to a refugee family and providing much needed help with integrating them into life in Epsom.
Every month, on the second Monday of each month at 5pm, Mike hosts a gathering for the Epsom Refugee Network where everyone helping and supporting refugees and asylum seekers are welcomed, especially the refugees themselves. As the volunteers and refugees arrive, Mike starts pushing tables together and pulling up extra chairs. He’s well used to the routine. Each newcomer is treated to a beaming smile and a warm “hello.” Some guests stay just for a coffee; others linger over one of Carmen’s famous falafel crepes.
Mike is Syrian. He arrived several years ago on a work visa, but recently left his job to open the Zig Zag café. It was perfect timing. Nina and Timothy, a local retired couple whose children had recently left home, had decided to offer their spare rooms to a refugee. No organization existed to help them so they started one and called it Refugees at Home. While showing their first guest – Ahmad Al-Rashid, a reserved and hesitant young Syrian man – around Epsom, Nina, who had heard about the new café, decided they should take a look.
“Mike was so welcoming,” Nina said, “and the atmosphere was just lovely.” Ahmad began to relax, too, and, having insisted he was only staying with Nina and Timothy for a couple of nights, went on to live with them for nearly five months. “I had no idea that anybody cared,” he told her. The café quickly became a social hub in Epsom for like-minded people.
Despite the positives, Nina and Timothy share a deep frustration that the so much volunteer help is needed at all. If the asylum system worked properly, they argued, they wouldn’t have to step in. But it is cheering to discover that there are so many ordinary people willing to help and that thousands of volunteer groups like the Epsom Refugee Network exist around the country.
“A little sweet treat on the house,” said Mike, setting down a plate of pancakes drizzled with cinnamon and chocolate. It’s easy to see why the hosts and guests love to come to Zig Zag – and it’s not just the culinary temptations. Mike treats his customers with the same warmth and respect as the volunteers show their guests.