Volunteers cook up survival scheme to get around Malaysia’s punitive refugee policy

Dalia from Palestine shows her guests how to make “Musakhan”, an Arabic roll, during a programme on Palestinian food hosted by PichaEats. (Picture courtesy Jun Hong)

PETALING JAYA: After over 20 children went missing from their refugee learning centre in Cheras, three young volunteers investigated what may have befallen the vulnerable youngsters.

What Kim Lim, Swee Lin and Suzanne Ling, all in their 20s, discovered came as a shock.

The refugee children were dropping out to take menial jobs in order to support their families who are forbidden by law to work.

This unsatisfactory situation arises because Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, meaning refugees cannot legally work or attend school.

The three friends agreed someone should find a legal solution that would enable local refugee families to sustain themselves financially, and so free their children to go back to class.

In the absence of anyone else, they decided to try to figure out a solution themselves.

“We put on fundraising concerts,” Kim, who studied music for four years at university, told FMT. “But that wasn’t sustainable. Then we thought that a business of some sort might work.

“We discovered that many of the parents were good cooks of their national dishes. Their food was different and tasted great. We decided to try selling it,” she said.

Their idea was a success. “We are now in our fourth year,” she beamed.

Specialising in meal box deliveries and catering services, PichaEats is a social enterprise that teams up with refugee families to help them become financially sustainable.

Kim Lim says PichaEats is a social enterprise to help refugees survive, and not profit-oriented.

The enterprise, named after the youngest son of one of the first families to join them, currently works with 13 different refugee families from Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Myanmar.

Picha chefs prepare the meals at home, while Kim and her growing young team cover logistics and operations, making sure the food is prepared hygienically and gets to customers on time.

“The challenge for us was successfully executing all the ideas we had. You can plan very well, but there will inevitably be a lot of hurdles and surprises,” said Kim.

“That’s when your ability to be flexible and creative comes into play.”

There have been tough times, like when one of their original chefs passed away from cancer.

“It was devastating for the family and the team. He was one of our pioneers,” she said.

“But we had to bounce back quickly because we had eight more families to take care of at the time. His family is still going strong, cooking with us right now.”

Kim stressed the importance of PichaEats being business-minded.

“We have to prioritise the team first before thinking of helping others.

“But for a social enterprise like this, if you don’t put business first you will go broke really soon. You probably couldn’t survive two years.”

She spoke positively of the local people and businesses who are their customers, saying they find PichaEats worth supporting as it provides a sustainable and dignified way for refugee families to support themselves.

And the food tastes great.

“Also, customers know that everything is transparent.”

50% of meal sales goes to the Picha chef to cover costs and basic living expenses. The other 50% goes to the Picha team to cover operating costs and reinvestment.

That reinvestment means PichaEats is expanding, starting to venture into the experience sector through immersive dinners, cooking workshops and even refugee simulation dinner experiences.

“We want to help people understand that the things they eat can help to rebuild lives. It’s more than just food,” said Kim.

And Picha wants to stimulate food for thought on other issues.

She hopes Malaysians will be more inclusive in the future, not just of refugees, but also other disadvantaged communities.

“For people like the handicapped, those with special needs, even people coming from the urban poor sector, we need to ask ourselves how we can be more inclusive in our education, our economy and our society.”

Having solved the mystery of the missing school children, and ensuring that Picha kids are back in class, it seems these dynamic and caring young women are ready for their next challenge.