Zhuldyz Abdykarimova is catching her breath after the lunchtime rush, wiping down tables in the small cafe where she works in a suburb of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s commercial capital.
Tucked into a low-rise apartment block, the eatery — with its menu offering standard Central Asian fare like noodles, dumplings and plov (meat and rice) — looks like any other eatery at the budget end of the market in the city.
Yet this is a cafe with a difference. The staff, smartly kitted out in long black aprons and yellow tops, live with learning disabilities and mental disorders, groups that are largely invisible in Kazakhstan.
“I work as a waitress, serving people... and I help in the dumpling shop. I like the job,” said Abdykarimova, a vivacious 26-year-old with a ready laugh. “I’ve been taught a lot here.”
Like the other staff, before she got a job in this outlet, which is called simply Training Cafe, Abdykarimova was isolated from the wider community.
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Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.