A ‘Pay As You Feel’ café set up to feed the vulnerable has found itself at the centre of a racism storm - with claims that staff have been threatened with violence - after painting a ‘Refugees Welcome’ mural outside the premises.
Bosses at The Real Junk Food Project in Armley, Leeds, painted the words ‘Refugees Welcome, Everybody Welcome’ on the outside wall to highlight their inclusive nature in the context of recent world events.
The café was set up to help the homeless and other vulnerable people, and only uses food that would otherwise be thrown away,
However some locals in the area - a multi-ethnic suburb which is home to a high number of eastern European migrants - are objecting to their actions.
Some claim that the painting is illegal graffiti and causing an “eyesore”, even though the building is owned by café manager Adam Smith.
However others have admitted openly that they object to the core message.
Police are now investigating claims that staff have been subjected to death threats and threats of violence.
Co-director of the café Geoff Atack said one man had told him he would break his legs if he carried on re-painting the message.
An emergency meeting has also been called today (Friday) at 5pm at the Armley One-Stop Centre to discuss locals’ concerns.
Staff turned up to work this morning to find the mural had been painted over in white.
Photoshopped images have also appeared on social media challenging the ‘Refugees Welcome’ message - and taunting the café owners.
But other objections have been even more sinister in tone.
Police are now investigating the whitewashing as criminal damage and a possible hate crime, and are stepping up their patrols in the area.
Officers are also looking into claims that staff have been subjected to death threats and threats of violence.
The café owners have been asked to keep a diary of incidents and any further threats.
Re-painting of the mural was temporarily halted earlier today at the height of the tension.
As the YEP interviewed Mr Smith at the scene in Chapel Lane, several people drove or walked past shouting obscenities and objections.
Mr Smith said he was shocked at the extent to which some people had been offended, adding: “It’s in our ethos to help the vulnerable. We are inclusive.”
One passerby - on being asked if it was the words or the actions that offended him - said: “I object to both what they are doing and the words.
“Don’t you think Armley is full enough already?”
He added: “I will be pursuing this legally. They are defacing public property.”
Inspector Simon Jessup, who heads the Inner West Neighbourhood Policing Team, said: “We are currently investigating the criminal damage at the cafe and treating it as racially-aggravated.
“We are also investigating a linked offence of publishing material to stir up racial hatred, which is related to social media.
“We always treat incidents of this nature very seriously and are doing everything we can to identify those responsible and bring them to justice.
“We have visited the café to offer support and reassurance to the victims, and officers will be increasing patrols in the area.
“We will continue to monitor the situation closely while our investigations continue.
“We would like to hear from anyone with any information that could assist our enquiries. We would also ask people to consider carefully any posts they make on social media in relation to these incidents.”
The debate over refugees has intensified in recent days as the crisis in war-torn Syria deepens.
In Leeds, a council-led task force has judged that 200 Syrians can be helped by the city over the next two years without putting strain on local services such as schools and housing. This was after Prime Minister David Cameron promised Britain would accept 20,000 people currently in refugee camps.
The council is expecting the Government to meet the costs associated with helping those fleeing Syria. However senior councillors are also expected next week to authorise handing £100,000 from council funds to help charities in the city supporting refugees.