Zuzana Auerova brings a chocolate-banana crepe to a guest at a cafe and sweet shop in central Prague, but does not know if the fork goes on the right or the left of the plate.
"I'm sorry, I don't really know how to do this yet," the 40-something who was recently released from prison says with a shy smile.
AdvertisementAuerova works at Cafe Dismas, a new venue with the slogan "cafe without prejudice," which employs former inmates to help reintegrate them into society.
"It's almost impossible to find a job with a criminal record. Employers say no and don't want to listen to you," says Auerova, who spent three years behind bars for burglary.
She once trained as a gardener but that was decades ago and she no longer feels able to return to the profession at her age. So when she left prison, she found a temporary job as a window cleaner before knocking on the door of the cafe.
"I was thrown in at the deep end. I had absolutely no experience doing this kind of work," says Auerova.
"But it's a good opportunity to learn something new, and to chat with people. I like that," she adds before serving a "Raspberry Temptation" sundae to two guests.
- The good thief -
The coffee shop's staff is hired for eight months by Dismas, a nonprofit organisation co-funded by the European Union. It was named after the good thief who repented of his sins after being crucified next to Jesus Christ.
A social worker with a decade of experience, Dismas founder Katerina Plhakova runs the cafe and sweet shop together with her mother Alena Pesanova.
Similar post-prison projects have sprung up elsewhere in the world, from a coffee bean-roasting operation in the United States to a Singaporean restaurant started by an ex-con and former heroin addict.
But the concept was new to the central European country when Cafe Dismas opened this summer.
"The Czech Republic has programmes for seniors or disabled people, but no one before us had thought of a project aimed at people just out of prison," Plhakova says.
That includes the justice ministry, which "doesn't even compile data on the number of former inmates who work or are unemployed," according to the 30-year-old.
"Why should they bear the burden of guilt for the rest of their lives? They come to us broken, distressed, and it's amazing to see them regain confidence when they know they're of use to others".
"But we only hire those who really want to work, who are motivated," she adds.
- Immense joy, incredible worries -
Stana Ledererova sips her cappuccino at one of the tables. She has come to see how her son Petr is faring a few days into his new job in the kitchen.
"I'm happy he has this opportunity. It will definitely be a good starting point for him. I know he's desperate to change," she says with a slight smile.
Taking a break from cooking, Petr Lederer recalls what it was like to be a free man again after doing time for theft.
"I felt immense joy of course, but that didn't last long," the former mechanic says.
"Suddenly you have all these huge worries: what am I going to eat tonight, where will I sleep, how will I earn a living..."
That is when his mother discovered the cafe on a social network.
Its owners are now planning to organise training for their employees to help them earn certificates of professional competence down the line.
There is also the question of what happens once the EU funds dry up.
"People are already getting into the habit of coming here, turnover is not bad, but it's nothing special either," Pesanova says.
"We will do our best to keep on doing this job to help people."
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