When you walk into Agonist coffee shop, you know you’ve reached somewhere special. It’s not just your average coffee house. It serves coffee, baked treats, and more importantly, offers a beautiful and powerful message of inclusion, love, and acceptance.
Agonist coffee shop is the first establishment in the MENA region to hire employees with special needs.
The man behind the concept is Dr. Wassim El Hage, a physical therapist by trade.
“I have worked with people with special needs or ‘iron will’ and they just need a place to integrate themselves in the community and be empowered and have a job like anyone else,” says Hage. He accomplished this by opening a place where they can be seen, heard, and appreciated for who they are.
Hage wants anyone who visits Agonist coffee shop to have direct contact with the staff, consisting of 12 people with special needs. He wants people to interact with them and see that they’re just as capable of communicating as anyone else, that they are capable of living independent lives and that the community should support them and encourage them to be independent.
“We have had a huge amount of support from the community and that’s the success point of the idea,” says Hage.
Before its opening, not everyone believed his idea would work in Lebanon. “I worked on this idea for three years, seeking funds through fundraising, from banks, or company sponsors, but no one shared my vision. So, I got a personal loan and did it alone.”
The best part of the café is the happiness it brings the staff. The smiles, laughter, and pure joy that comes from just interacting with their community and feeling accepted. People come in to meet them, talk to them, take photos with them, and just get to know them.
“The employees arrive before their shifts start and leave after it ends,” says Hage. “They don’t want days off. They want to work seven days a week because they’re just so happy here.”
The biggest lesson you can learn from them is to love, and to smile without wanting anything in return.
During the summer, they attended various church and municipality festivals all over Lebanon in a renovated 1977 Volkswagen van. Transformed into a coffee truck, equipped with all the necessities to make their delicious drinks like specialty coffees, smoothies and juices, Agonist coffee shop took to the road, serving communities while spreading their message of love and acceptance.
“Without fear, you can achieve anything in your life.”
“Our team discovered many places in Lebanon that they had never visited before. Wherever we went almost everyone knew them by name, and wanted to take photos with them, give them hugs, and enjoy time together,” says Hage. “Having direct contact between the staff and community. That was one of our goals and we’ve done it.”
In the future, Hage has plans to open other branches in Lebanon to give special needs people in other parts of the country a chance to work too. “I have a waiting list of 15 employees with special needs but I don’t have the means to hire them at this branch,” says Hage. “So hopefully we can open another branch and give them a chance as well.”
Word of its success has spread and other countries in the MENA region are now becoming interested in starting their own businesses with special needs employees at the forefront.
“We have to give them their chance, because they are really valuable and can really be an asset to society,” says Hage. “I want to encourage all young entrepreneurs and small business owners to fight for their businesses and to have the courage to create new ideas and not fear failure. Without fear, you can achieve anything in your life.”