Food for Change

02 April 2018

Three young Malaysians are working to empower refugees living in Malaysia with a catering and food delivery business.

A chance meeting at a volunteer program led three university students, Kim Lim, Lee Swee Lin and Suzanne Ling, to start The Picha Project, a catering and food delivery business that commissions refugees living in Malaysia.

Back in 2016, the trio experimented with the idea of selling packed lunches at school made by a refugee family from Myanmar. After four months of trial and error, they finally got into the groove and decided to go full-time.

(From left) The Picha Project founders Suzanne Ling, Lee Swee Lin and Kim Lim.

The project began with just one family and 20 homemade lunchboxes. Today, it has served more than 60,000 meals prepared by nine refugee families from Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar and Palestine.

"There are more than 150,000 refugees in Malaysia that are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees," Lim says.

Credit: Gerry Fox

"A lot of them struggle financially because they are not allowed to legally work in this country. Most of the kids drop out from school because their families can't afford it. They don't even have enough money to cover basic needs like food, shelter and medical bills."

In the beginning, it was a challenge for the team to overcome the public stigma of working with refugees. They admit that a lot of clients were concerned with food safety and quality, and had the perception that refugees are a threat to the nation.

"The negative stereotyping of refugees makes people fear them, but in reality they are just like the rest of us," says Lee.

Qhabeli rice from Sakina’s Afghan Kitchen

"They have the same dreams for their children. They work hard to support their families. They should be treated equally and have the same opportunities as everyone else. What we are trying to do is provide them with a platform to do that."

As the Picha Project is essentially a food business that caters to a number of large corporations, quality is a top priority. Lim says the refugees are sent for proper training, and all the food is cooked on the day of delivery to guarantee freshness.

But at the heart of the business is a community programme that redefines the concept of 'doing good'. Donations may be helpful, but they only provide short-term solutions to a long-term problem.

Mantu (chicken dumplings) from Sakina’s Afghan Kitchen

"To really empower these refugees they have to be able to earn a stable monthly income," explains Ling.

"Hopefully, we can be the face of sustainable solutions for refugees around the world. We want to impact 30 families by the end of the year. We are also trying to build a backend system [to improve efficiency and streamline communication between the team and the families] that can be replicated in other countries."

Credit: Gerry Fox

Ultimately, the goal of The Picha Project is to create change in the attitudes and policies impacting refugees in Malaysia. By allowing them legal work rights, they can become self-reliant, rebuild their lives and contribute to the local economy.

"Change has to start with us," says Lim.

"The best that we can do is to lead by example. Instead of focusing on the negative, perhaps it's time for us to find mutual grounds, unite with one another, and work towards solving this urgent human crisis. What's the point of being here if we can't even take care of our own neighbours?"

Order your meal box from The Picha Project at www.pichaproject.com.

By Rozella Mahjhrin
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi. Food photos courtesy of The Picha Project.

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