BEIRUT: “A lot of people told me that I’m taking a risk; they insisted that customers at a coffee shop don’t want to be surrounded by workers who are different than them. ‘It will create pressure and tension’, they said.
However, I had a strong urge to change some people’s belief that individuals with special needs have negative behavior. They are not abnormal, just special,” said Wassim El Hage, owner of Agonist coffee shop, the first one in Lebanon to have a team of employees with special needs.
El Hage, who is a physical therapist, found joy in interacting with people with special needs while working with them. Thus, being familiar with their capacities, he decided to give them an opportunity to work in a place where there is direct contact with people. He noticed that they usually work on handmade crafts only “behind the scenes."
“Patrons usually see their products, but not them,” he said.
Hence, he collaborated with the Lebanese Down Syndrome Association and selected individuals who are able to cope with work environment requiring customer service. With the help of an assistant, they trained them and prepared the potential staff for the opportunity.
After three years of hard work, Agonist coffee shop officially opened on December 16, 2018. To El Hage’s pleasant surprise, since day two, people have flocked into the new shop to discover the place.
“My dad brought me here once and since then I became addicted. We come for their company and the amicable atmosphere,” said Racha Massaad while Ghassan, one of the employees, gazes at her with a smile on his face.
The minute one lays foot in the place, they can tell this coffee shop is different. Maria, Ghassan, or Elie rush to welcome guests with strong energy as if they are long-lost friends or celebrities. Then, they offer them a basket from which they choose a strip of paper containing a heartening message. One of the team members may sit next to the customers, dripping innocence and pouring joy simply by being present.
“This is the best home to have and I am so happy to see people daily and talk to them. I am never tired but enthusiastic,” said Maria as she takes an order from a customer.
Aside from compassion, the coffee shop serves all kinds of coffee, juice, and smoothies along with homemade desserts baked by the coffee shop’s chef. In addition to the sweet smell, a warm aura invades the place and makes one feel at home with another family.
“Parents whose kids have special needs told me they’re thrilled that for once, in a coffee shop, their children aren’t stared at. They added ‘you also gave us hope that when our children grow up, they will find work opportunities,” said El Hage.
“Additionally, one of my friends, inspired by my initiative, is planning to start a factory where he recruits people with special needs. The word “agonist” is defined as “a substance which initiates a physiological response when combined with a receptor”. I am glad that ever since the official opening, as intended, the coffee shop has been nothing but a true positive agonist,” he added.
The shop is on Mar Jerjess St, Zalka.
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