At the door of a café located in a public garden in the Syrian capital Damascus, Riham Kattan welcomes the customers with a huge smile, and invites them to enter. “Hello, my name is Riham. Welcome to our café,” she says, shaking hands and expressing her happiness.
Two more young men approach. One asks what the customers would like to drink, and whether they want to smoke shisha, while the second goes to the bar and then brings the orders. Around twenty young men and women work in this place. They all share the same big and distinctive smile. They all have Down’s Syndrome.
Succet is the first café in Syria where disabled people wait on the customers. It was established last year in Tishreen public park in Damascus with two main goals: firstly to offer this group the chance for practical training which then gives them a potential job opportunity in the future, and most importantly, to integrate them within society, by working in a place which attracts hundreds of visitors every day.
A very Different Place
At a table in Succet café, one of the managers, Saleh al-Ismail, talks about the idea behind it. “We are a local NGO called Juzour (the Arabic word for “roots”), and we have been working for three years with those who are very affected by the war, including women and persons with disabilities, and this is where Succet started.”
In March 2018, a date that marks Mother’s Day in Syria and also World Down’s Syndrome day, Juzour organised a celebration for the mothers who have sons affected by the syndrome, to honour their great efforts in taking care of their families.
During the day, one mother expressed her dream, which is “to see her son being economically and socially independent, and having his own work, family and house.”
From this, the organisation started a special programme for around 40 people suffering from Down’s Syndrome, aiming to give them professional and behaviour-modification training, and also to engage a number of them in the labour market.
“By doing this, we are putting those young people directly into the heart of professional life, and it is indeed one of their basic rights,” adds al-Ismail, who is the CEO of Juzour, and also an educator. There are no official numbers for people with Down’s Syndrome in Syria, but the organisation was able to document around 600 in Damascus only.
As an output of this programme, Succet café opened its doors to the public last year during a one-month festival called ‘el-Sham Btejma’na’ or ‘Damascus Gathers Us’. Around ten young people worked there, under the supervision of Juzour staff and also other psychological, social and educational specialists. Besides the daily training and practice, they received special care, and subsequent psychosocial support, to deal with any possible negative situations they might face during their work.
The café is named Succet for two reasons: it is a French word that means ‘lollipop’, since Down’s Syndrome persons love to eat sweets, and secondly because the shape of the lollipop, being round and lovely, has a similarity to the face of those persons.
“It was a kind of hit inside the Syrian society last year,” says al-Ismail, expressing his pride for the project. “It was the first time ever for Syrians to enter a café and find disabled staff, and we got around 13,000 visits,” he adds, emphasising the positive effect that this project had on the young persons, their families and visitors in general, and this is what encouraged the organisation to repeat the experience this year, with a bigger number of trainees and staff.
Although it is a short-term project that is running only for a few months each year, al-Ismail explains that the general goal is to encourage persons with disabilities to go out and socialise, and move away from the stigma they usually suffer from inside the Syrian community, and also to build a career if possible. He mentions that a few of Succet staff were able to find a job in one of Damascus’ cafés last year.
“Encouraging the owner of a café in the city centre and its staff to accept new employees with Down’s Syndrome was a real victory for us, and we are willing to do the same this year”.
Our Happiest Days
Next to Riham, who is 23, both Elias Haddad and Fadi Hallak work on taking orders. They seem so happy and relaxed while talking to their customers. 18-year old Elias, who is here for the second year in a row, says that he loves it when a lot of people come, especially during the evening. “They are so kind to us,” he adds.
For Fadi,19, who is having his first working experience this year, Succet is a very warm place, and occasionally he brings his keyboard to play some music with his friends. “I think I will take part again next year. Why not?” he says with a wide smile in his eyes.
Behind the bar is Hazem. Laughing loudly, he refuses to say how old he is. Hazem is very experienced in preparing Arabic coffee, along with hot and soft drinks. Along with two other young men, he bartends the customers and prepares their orders.
Hazem loves the café work, and also plays sport. He has a great sense of humour, as his colleagues say, and in his turn, he cannot stop repeating that he is spending a great time there. “Yes, we are very happy here, and definitely I will come next year and the year after.”