In early March, Parliament On King was on track to have its best year yet.
The Sydney refugee-run cafe was hit with big catering orders every day and regularly fed hundreds of people. In fact, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) would request 140 litres of soup to ladle out to its international students each week. Ravi Prasad, who operates Parliament On King with his wife Della, says, "You could fill a spa tub with that amount of soup."
The couple is so committed to helping asylum seekers gain work that they converted their living room to make it possible: Parliament On King is run out of their Erskineville home and they've spent the last six years training refugees on how to make a good coffee or excellent bowl of soup. They also expanded their business to offer catering – and it's been a hit. Orders doubled for three years in a row.
"You could fill a spa tub with that amount of soup."
But in late March, when the Federal Government announced new physical-distancing rules – and tight restrictions on group gatherings – demand for the cafe's catering services evaporated.
"Within 10 days, all of our bookings were cancelled," he says.
Parliament On King went from getting six catering jobs a day to only receiving two orders over the past three months – including a wedding that was only allowed 10 guests under physical-distancing rules.
Prasad couldn't rely on normal cafe trade to bring in money or work for his refugee staff, either – because normal cafe trade no longer existed under pandemic-trading guidelines.
First, there was the dine-in ban imposed on eateries. Now, as venues are permitted to serve diners as long as there are four square metres of space allocated per guest, Parliament On King is so small that having four customers would already put the cafe over the limit.
"Not only did we lose our business, but we lost our capacity to retain [our refugee staff] and the capacity to care for them," says Prasad.
At first, he saw hope in the government's JobKeeper scheme, which could subsidise his workers' wages during this financially challenging time. But because Parliament On King is run by refugees from Eritrea, Iraq and everywhere in between, they're not eligible for payments.
So Prasad kept Parliament On King running as a lifeline for them.
"Let's pay them to do something," he thought.
"You read about the increase in homelessness, the international students queuing up for food, and I just felt, let's just make as much soup as we can afford to make, pay as many [workers per] hour as we can afford, two nights a week, Friday and Saturday, and just give the food away."
And that's how The Soup of Human Kindness was born: the pop-up soup kitchen runs on the site of Parliament On King. Employees hand out soup from a takeaway window – it's free for anyone who's struggling, or priced at $5 for anyone who can afford it. The menu reflects the diversity of the staff. A Persian mixed-bean soup might be offered one night, while mohinga, the national dish of Burma, might be ladled out the next week.
Although The Soup of Human Kindness exists to help people in need, running it comes at a cost.
"It occurred to me that we couldn't just keep funding that out of our own pockets forever," says Prasad.
So he launched a crowdfunding campaign. He optimistically listed $20,000 as a goal, because that would help give the project financial security.
"What I expected was a quarter of that," he says. "We reached that total within about two weeks."
Some people generously dropped $500 or $1,000 – but Prasad was most moved by the smaller contributions.
"I know a lot of the guys who come here and they're students. Some of them work in hospitality and they don't have anything," he says. "But we were getting $10 and $20 donations from people that I know don't have anything."
Help from a City of Sydney grant means Prasad can run The Soup of Human Kindness until the end of the year. The project feeds people beyond its Erskineville takeaway window, too. Soups have been delivered to Bayside Women's Shelter, Tribal Warrior, Will2Live, One Meal – It Makes A Difference, and Ultimo's Uniting Harris Community Centre (which serves homeless and international student communities, and recently doubled its request due to high demand).
Hiring refugees to cook Burmese coconut soup and other meals has another social pay-off, too. Being part of Parliament On King's family has led to many opportunities for its staff. One asylum seeker, Krish, started as a chef there and now runs his own bakery, selling roti to various businesses across Sydney. There's also Hani, who escaped war-torn Somalia as a teenager, and started working at Parliament On King in high school. She's since published her first book of poetry and received a scholarship to UTS, where she's studying journalism. It's part of a long-held dream of hers: when she spent 11 months in Christmas Island's detention centre, she hoped to one day become an investigative reporter and created her own newsletter every Friday, which featured mock interviews with politicians from Canberra.
Another highlight for Prasad? Seeing his employees Nora from Uganda and Asama from Myanmar walk into Parliament On King with identical headscarves, looking like knockouts because they'd been shopping together.
"A lot of these guys are incredibly socially isolated because they are here alone," he says. But at the cafe, people from opposite ends of the world can become very close.
"There are a lot of connections between people who come here and work," he says. "They're befriended by locals and then before you know it, they're down at the pub with Matthew having a beer." And Prasad has made it possible, direct from his living room.
The Soup of Human Kindness (at Parliament On King)
632 King St, Erskineville NSW, 0414 235 325
From 5pm, Fridays – Saturdays
World Refugee Week is June 14-20, 2020. Share a Meal, Share a Story is a community fundraising initiative of the Refugee Council of Australia. We are encouraging people to get together, share a delicious meal and share stories that help build empathy and understanding of refugee experiences. In light of COVID-19, you can host your event either in-person or online. You could host a Zoom where you share a story from our website and each eat a meal in your own homes!