Skip to main content

Istanbul cafe employs workers with Down syndrome

Nearly 25 people with Down syndrome earn a living in Down Cafe
A customer hugs one of the Down Cafe waiters in Istanbul (Facebook / Down Cafe)

By Burcu Arik

ISTANBUL- "Welcome sir! What would you like to order?" 

At first glance, there is nothing out of the ordinary in Down Cafe located in one of the more well off neighborhoods of Istanbul.

The hint is in the name. Indeed, all 25 employees, aged 18 to 25, have Down syndrome.  

"Down Cafe was established to create employment and increase the self-confidence of young people with Down syndrome," said Saruhan Singen, who opened the cafe in Sisli district of Istanbul.

Both founder and architect of the cafe, Singen has a daughter with Down syndrome, named Sezil, who is also currently employed in the cafe.

"I have Sezil and I think she is a gift to me to understand others like her," said Singen as employees navigate between white tables, orange chairs surrounded by colorful walls full of pictures of themselves and of paintings of their own making.

"However, when we think about the number of people with Down syndrome, there is not a wide range of career paths in," said Singen.

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that influences development throughout life, causing intellectual and physical disability and associated medical issues, according to UK-based charity Down Syndrome International (DSI).

DSI said, that in recent years, Down syndrome has become more common, affecting approximately 1 in 800 live births, depending on the mother's age and on prenatal screening rates.  

Worldwide, around 220,000 babies are born every year with the condition, according to DSI.

According to Turkey's National Down Syndrome Association, nearly 1,500 babies are born each year with Down syndrome in Turkey. There are more than 100,000 people in the country with the disorder. 

"Improved medical care is absolutely essential for these special kids but it is more important that we must do everything possible to help them live more independent and fulfilling lives," Singen said. 

A joint project of the Istanbul Foundation for Mentally Disordered People and of Sisli municipality, the cafe is sponsored by Alternative Life Association, which was established to increase awareness on issues affecting socially and physically disadvantaged people.

According to Singen, when the cafe was first opened in 2011, business was slow as potential customers hesitated to enter.

Those who did enter the café appeared aloof but, once the initial surprise wore off, they started to appreciate the ambiance.

"I think the cafe also helps people get rid of their prejudices against disabled people and provides a chance to people with Down syndrome to prove themselves and show off their talents," Singen said. 

The employees work alternately and receive a monthly salary. Open from 9 to 5 on weekdays, the cafe can host a total of 40 customers. 

"We have volunteer mothers helping us in the kitchen by cooking and washing dishes while Sisli Municipality pays our bills," explains Singen. 

"They want to be together with more people, they want to be accepted by the society and they want their talents to be discovered," says Singen. "That is why we need more sponsors, donators and especially more customers to increase the number of the cafes like Down Cafe."