(Persia Digest) – A small coffee shop with seven tables and walls covered in children’s warm, colorful paintings, a large organ in a corner played by the delicate hands of a boy and a singalong - I am happy and free and grateful - a few girls and boys in their blue and white uniforms serving the customers while accompanying the organ player with the sing-song, moving to the music, and smiling at you with faces looking alike as if they will never grow up… a few shaky hands behind the counter making coffee and serving chocolate cake. This is Downtism Café in the middle of Tehran which is run by girls and boys with down syndrome and autism.
The coffee shop opened a month ago through the efforts of Aylin Agahi - their music teacher - their families, and the Welfare Organization of Iran. The children themselves run the place and you have to queue up for a table.
Aylin Agahi has been teaching music to the youngsters with special needs for seventeen years. She has also been working with these children and decided to start up a coffee shop for them in 2016. But this was no easy task. Training the children who have autism and down syndrome for the job took two years. Finding funding and support was a task on its own. She now supervises their work at the coffee shop until they are on top of things.
In her interview with Persia Digest, Aylin said happily: “The children are experienced now and have been self-sufficient as from yesterday. They can work independently, but there will always be a supervisor here.”
Downtism Café only has seven tables. Once it began work, the number of children eager to work here increased. This is a good sign for them to interact with the public and the outside world. But this little café is already too busy to answer the needs of customers and workers.
Aylin gives the news of ten other children joining the team: “We started work with fifteen children, but have twenty-five working with us now. We accepted all the special needs children who wanted to work and trained them.”
The Welfare Organization has given great support to the coffee shop and helped them from ground zero to inauguration. Aylin says: “Now that the coffee shop is up and running we are faced with new hurdles. The place is too small. We have had a lot of support from the Welfare Organization and the youngsters’ families. If it was only two meters wider, it would make life easier for these young people working here. We have very little room to serve our customers. To be honest, we weren’t expecting such an overwhelming response.”
She continued: “We started out by buying equipment that cost less with a shorter lifespan. But after just one month, we are thinking about more robust equipment that would be easier for the youngsters to work with and serve the customers. We cannot expect welfare to spend more money, but are hoping for public support to keep the Downtism Café going.”
She says the income here is good and people keep coming: “But everything we make is paid as wages to the youngsters who work here and there is not much left over for other expenses.”
There is a long queue outside waiting for a table. People keep coming, some after work, to have tea and listen to the live music with gentle folk in the midst of a bustling city to leave some of the troubles behind.
Aylin Agahi talks about the kindness of customers with those who work here: “People are really kind and considerate. They have been really supportive of these young people with special needs to make their social debut.”
I ask her: “As you always have live music and sing-songs, why don’t you change this into a musical café?” she says we might some day, but right now we are preoccupied with teething problems.