INDIA

'Library cafe' gives Mumbai's street children hot chocolate and a second chance

Both children and adults visit Amin Sheikh's library café. All of the photos were published on the Facebook page "Bombay to Barcelona Library Cafe".
Both children and adults visit Amin Sheikh's library café. All of the photos were published on the Facebook page "Bombay to Barcelona Library Cafe".

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This summer, the 'Bombay to Barcelona Library Cafe' opened its doors in India's biggest city, Mumbai. The café, which was set up by Amin Sheikh, a former street child himself, is open to people from all walks of life, but underprivileged children can eat there for free. Sheikh also employs six young people who spent time in the streets as a way of helping them reintegrate into society.

Amin Sheikh fled his family home when he was only 5 to escape savage beatings by his stepfather.

Sheikh learnt how to survive alone on the streets of Mumbai, by scavenging for food in rubbish bins, begging and stealing. Three years later, he was taken in by the Snehasadan orphanage, which aims to help street children.

Amin spent many of his early years trying to scrape together a living by collecting plastic bottles and reselling them, or washing cars and boats. When he was 17, he found employment as a driver, cook and cleaner for a wealthy man. This lucky break changed Amin’s life. A few years later, Amin’s employer helped him to launch his own travel agency, 'Sneha Travels'. His employer also paid for Amin to take a trip to Europe. That’s where Amin, a born innovator, first got the idea of opening a library café.

"The cafe helps the young people who work there to forge a new identity within society"

In Europe - and in Barcelona in particular - I saw lots of cafes where people could drink, eat, read and talk, whatever their social standing. No one ever told me that I wasn't welcome because I was a driver [Editor's note: In India, discrimination remains pervasive across society because of the legacy of the caste system, even though the constitution forbids, for example, restaurants from ]. My aim was to open a similar establishment in Mumbai that is open to both rich and poor.

In order to finance the project, I decided to write an autobiography. It was published in 2013 and was translated into eight languages [Editor's note: In English, it is called "Bombay, Mumbai. Life is life. I am because of you"]. Thanks to the sales from the book and other donations, I was finally able to open the 'Bombay to Barcelona Library Cafe' on August 15, 2016.

Amin Sheikh poses next to copies of his autobiography, displayed on the wall. He wrote the book to fund his café.

Sheikh's café, as seen from the outside.

At the moment, I have employed six young men and women, between the ages of 18 and 27. Like me, they all used to live on the streets and were taken in by the Snehasadan orphanage. Young people have to move out of the orphanage between the age of 18 to 20. I wanted to make sure that they didn't find themselves back on the streets after leaving the orphanage.

Part of the cafe's team, made up of six former street children and a handful of volunteers.

The cafe is open every day, from 9am until 10pm. Many children from the neighbouring school come to see us, as well as street children and other members of the public. We offer them hot chocolate, sandwiches, cookies, and muffins.

Children inside the 'Bombay to Barcelona Library Cafe'.

Some of the food items sold inside the cafe.

The food and drinks that we sell cost between 10 and 200 rupees [Editor's note: Between 0.14 and 2.74 euros]. Those with the means to do so pay for what they consume. But they can also pay for someone else's hot chocolate, for example. We also offer disadvantaged children free food and drinks.

'For underprivileged children, free hot chocolate, cookies'

What's more, we have around 200 books in the café. We have a little bit of everything, from nonfiction books to photo albums to fairytales for children. People regularly donate books. You can read anything you want inside the café, but we don’t lend books.

The young people we employ here earn around 7,000 rupees a month, just like me [Editor's note: 96 euros, slightly less than each person's average personal income in India]. The money comes from my own book sales, because we still don't make enough money in the café. I was also able to rent an apartment where four of my employees now live. The other two still live at the orphanage. A handful of volunteer workers also help us out on a regular basis.

A Spanish volunteer helps at Amin Sheikh's library cafe.

"The cafe helps young people get to know the workplace better"

The cafe helps those young people who work there rebuild an identity for themselves within society. Each of the young people who work here are cultivating special skills. Anil is particularly good at cooking desserts; Rajkumar wants to become a photographer; Sai does break-dancing; Khushboo makes clothes, etc. I'm hoping that they'll be able to showcase their talents inside the cafe.

We also offer the opportunity for other young people who once stayed at the orphanage to showcase their own products to sell them, such as clothes and cards. The cafe gives them a space to get some publicity for their handiwork.

Sheikh sitll returns to his work as a Mumbai travel guide a few days each month. At least 37,000 children currently live in the streets of Mumbai.