Almaty Café Opens with Mentally Challenged Employees

ASTANA – The Training Café, an eatery staffed by 20 individuals with mental illness, opened recently in Almaty. The project, financed by the Soros Foundation, is organised by the Psychoanalytic Association of Kazakhstan.

A training cafe employee is interviewed about his job.

A training cafe employee is interviewed about his job. Photo from Vlast.kz.

“I work as a street sweeper and I like this job and my team very much. We are like a big family here. As of today, it is very important for me to get liberty… I want to have independence, I want to live,” said 22-year-old Alexey Kapustin, according to Vlast magazine.

The employment is the first Kapustin has ever had. Getting the job is not just a victory; it is a real hope to become a full member of society.

“They often discuss independence, because all of them live in a care home, a special centre for people with mental illnesses. Our main purpose is to give the opportunity to work, to get skills and be independent. They are very happy to work and ready to work every day without weekends. They do their best and try to work hard,” said psychologist and café administrator Kamila Mergenbayeva in a July 1 interview for this story.

Although some employees have an intellectual age of 12, they are reliable and perform their tasks, she added. Early problems, such as shyness among the waiters, have been overcome and the employees are considered to be quite special.

“Some of them don’t know how to count, because they haven’t had a full school education. Even two plus two is a great challenge for them, but we work on this,” said Mergenbayeva. “But they do their work and thanks to our training, now everything is alright.”

Each employee has his or her own duties and responsibilities, such as Alexey, a street sweeper, Zhuldyz, a waiter, and Madina, a cleaner.

“All of them work on a shift basis, but labour training isn’t the only thing we are doing here,” added Mergenbayeva. “Usually they work only from 1 p.m. till 3p.m. and they are trained by a professional psychologist the rest of the time.”

The café had financial problems in the beginning as there were not enough patrons and the income was sufficient only to pay the salary of the cook, she said. The situation has greatly improved thanks to people who visit, have lunch and support the operation.

Employees at Astana's training cafe. Photo from Vlast.kz.

Cafe administrator Kamila Mergenbayeva and a customer at Astana’s training cafe. Photo from Vlast.kz.

Mergenbayeva is very optimistic, noting extensive plans to open similar cafés in Kazakhstan’s big cities such as Astana, Shymkent, Karaganda and others, because people with mental illness live in every urban area. The most significant issue is rent, but the assistance of the Soros Foundation, coupled with a large discount by the owner, has helped the fledgling eatery.

“Rent for a good place with good publicity is expensive. We are supported by the Soros Foundation, which helped us to pay for six-month’s rent in advance,” she said. “The rent contract will expire in the end of October and we hope that after that we will continue working.”

The cafe is situated at 202 Aymanova Street.

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