International Cafe Abingdon – visit 05.05.23

International Café Abingdon – visit 05.05.23

On Friday 5th May 2023 I visited International Café Abingdon together with four other members of Didcot Churches Refugee Welcome. The purpose of the visit was to see how it runs, learn from the experiences of those running it and gain inspiration, as we plan to trial an international café in Didcot. We were made very welcome and all found the visit enjoyable, informative and worthwhile.
International Café Abingdon is run by Host Abingdon in partnership with Christ Church, Abingdon. It takes place every Friday, 1-3pm, at The Barn, Christ Church, Northcourt Road, Abingdon, OX14 1PL. The publicity promises a “friendly atmosphere, English practice, new friends, food, support”.
The venue is a beautiful, renovated stone barn with a high ceiling with wooden beams. One end of the building is a permanent church-run café, The Barns, serving food and drink to paying customers. The other end of the building is an open multi-functional space, which on Friday afternoons houses the International Café.
At one end of the room (the left hand end) is a table with volunteers serving drinks and refreshments and a rough circle of chairs around some low coffee tables, for people to sit and chat. At the side are a range of toys for small children. On a table near the entrance are food items, available for anyone to take, left over from the foodbank session which was immediately beforehand in a building across the yard. On the coffee tables are fliers for forthcoming events and an information file. This is an A4 ring-binder bulging with relevant information resources on topics such as housing, employment, advice services, psychotherapeutic support, including details of various local organisations.
International Café Abingdon was born in 2022 out of a group of people considering how they could help, as refugees from Ukraine began to arrive in the area. Whilst currently most of the café guests are refugees from Ukraine, it is open to all nationalities and types of immigration status. Women and children living in a local asylum hostel came for a short time but were generally quite shy and now prefer to attend separate activities organised for them by Host Abingdon. At International Café Abingdon there are usually about 12 adult guests and six volunteers each session. The café is run by a core group of three women together with a pool of volunteers (male and female) from different churches and the community. Most of these volunteers attend the café on different weeks (without need of a formal rota) and chat with the guests, while one lady’s contribution is to bake and deliver a cake to the café every week.
Approximately the first half hour of the session is given over to general conversation and refreshments. One of the organisers goes round greeting people, asking their names and writing everyone a sticky name label. There is then a short time giving notices – this week about the town’s coronation weekend celebrations, the group’s forthcoming Eurovision watch party (on a large screen on the side wall of the barn) and the International Café Didcot pilot sessions. One of the Ukrainian guests is asked to translate for her compatriots, where necessary. Then sofas and chairs are positioned at the opposite (right hand) end of the room in a semi-circle facing a flip-chart stand, and people are encouraged to move across to this seating area for the English class. The interactive class, which lasts about an hour, is led by a volunteer teacher, herself Ukrainian, with plenty of English native-speaker volunteers to help the guests in small group work. Some of the volunteers do not join in with the class, but rather use this time to stay round the coffee tables and discuss things together and also to tidy up.
With International Café Abingdon being relatively small, the organisers have built up good relationships with each of the guests who attend regularly. Guests appreciate the café and in particular that there are plenty of native speakers to practise their English with.
When we visited everyone was very positive about the idea of an International Café in Didcot. Volunteers shared with us some information resources and suggestions for future guest speakers. They thought that some of their guests might even travel from Abingdon to attend the café in Didcot as they would be interested in the advice from experts.

Joanna Schüder