IT’S been searing hot in Serdang but by 5pm, the rainclouds have slowly started to swallow the sun. This part of town looks like any other part of the country except that the men, women and children who roam these streets are mostly of Burmese, South Asian, Middle Eastern and African stock.
Just a stone’s throw away from the shop lots, a solitary guard stands at the gates of an apartment block. The building can’t be more than a decade old but its beige walls are already blackened by grime. The stench of the clogged drain at the entrance meets the cool air from the downpour, which only amplifies it. The guard, who is probably used to the scurrying rodents zipping outside the apartment, points towards an entrance of the car park so that our group can take the lift to where we want to go — a house belonging to a refugee family who is hosting us for dinner.
After walking through the car park lit only by a few flickering fluorescent lights, we finally get to the floor we are looking for. The corridor is dark and desolate, and we are left wondering if, maybe, we are in the wrong place, or worse, the wrong side of luck. We brave ahead further down the corridor completely unsure if we are at the right place, till an Iraqi lady with a bright smile welcomes us in.
There, some other 17 Malaysians of different colour and creed sit, chit-chatting. Everyone gathered in the home that night are strangers, yet the matriarch of the Iraqi family greets us like we are family. Her children serve tea with a shy smile and point to a spread of basmathi rice with roasted chicken, chicken shawarmas and falafels.
The dinner, which brings together Malaysians and refugee families, is an initiative by The Picha Project, a Malaysian social enterprise seeking to empower the much marginalised community of refugees through the one thing that binds us all — food.
ROOT OF GOOD
“We’ve been very busy,” Lee Swee Lin, Kim Lim and Suzanne Ling, founders of The Picha Project, say with a laugh. The trio, who met as volunteers on a project at their alma matter UCSI University, formed the social enterprise last year. But their exposure to refugees, however, came three years earlier as students who were volunteering as teachers in a refugee school near their campus in Cheras.
“We started to notice how these children were dropping out of class or missing classes,” Ling recalls. “We couldn’t understand why this was happening,” she adds.
The principle of the school then urged the girls to find out why even the top student was planning to quit school. So the trio went to the heart of the matter — the homes of these children. “Two years we were teaching them and never once did we think of going to their home,” Ling admits, shaking her head.
Stepping into their homes sent jolts through their cores. “We weren’t very surprised at the condition of the places they stayed in because the refugee school we taught at was next door and it was similar,” Lim says in reference to the dirt-ridden spaces, where cockroaches and rats scampering around were a norm. “It was what we saw when we entered their homes which took us aback,” Lee confides.
The girls found three families of four to five people living in the apartment which is barely 600sq m in size. “That’s one family to a room,” Lim says emphasising just how stuffy and cramped up the space was.
But it was the sight of what the young children were eating which left a sinking feeling in their bones. “These children were barely 5 years old and they were eating rice which had already started to form into clumps, which we suspect was leftover rice. They were eating that with Maggi soup,” Ling discloses.
Meat, as they explain, is too expensive for these families to buy. Lee then relates a story of a refugee from Myanmar who worked seven days a week on 12 hour shifts at a car wash. He earned a meagre RM38 a day to support his family of five — a shocking but normal amount for many refugees and stateless people who are not protected by labour laws in Malaysia.
The idea of food catering was born out of the basic necessity to put food on the table. The refugees, they felt, could use their cooking skills as a means to sustain themselves. Initially called The Hands of Hope Kitchen, under the same volunteer group they founded in university, the girls decided to name the project Picha, after the child of their first cook, a refugee from Burma named Ganu.
“In the early days we would help Ganu pack her cooking and deliver it, and the then 4-year-old Picha would walk us down the stairs,” they share.
As Lim points out, there’s a big difference between charity and empowerment. “Charity is just giving and not many people are aware that these refugees don’t want money. In their culture, money is earned through hard work.”
Sustainability on the other hand, she notes, comes from empowerment. “Empowerment is at the heart of The Picha Project - financial, physical, mental health and education empowerment. That’s what we wanted to do - build a platform for them to start anew,” Lim informs.
Empowerment as some of the guests at the Picha Open House notes, works both ways. “Everyone deserves a life of dignity and freedom, and refugees have the same dreams and desires - except that they each took huge risks to achieve them,” says singer-songwriter Bizhu. “I hope that through initiatives like The Picha Project, more of us can see our common humanity and not the differences.”
As Ling confides, many who attend the event are unaware of the kind of challenges faced by refugees in the country. “We get a lot of people who are very surprised that refugees do not have rights to the most basic things like healthcare and education, as well as rights to work legally. So when they come here, sit down and hear their stories, people walk out with a different perception of the situation these people are really in.”
For a community that is virtually non-existent in the eyes of the law, Lee acknowledges that their sense of purpose and self-confidence increases as more and more people start to buy their food. “Some families even save up to buy better equipment to cook,” she says with a smile.
Ling, a psychology student, adds that empowerment is also about giving them back their dignity by earning their own money.
“There’s a lot of prejudice against refugees here,” Lim says, citing misconceptions ranging from refugees being criminals, to being lazy and taking advantage of government spending. “But all they really needed was a platform to start on their own,” she says, adding that many of the refugees here are actually highly qualified.
Of the nine families The Picha Project works with, a number of the refugees were working as professional nurses and teachers, journalists, architects, bank officers and chefs before fleeing their countries and had led comfortable lives.
Lim informs that it takes almost a year and a half to be granted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) card and another eight to 10 years before they are resettled in other countries. “Sometimes we ask them what they want to do in the future but they say their future is now no longer in their hands. Like their life is on pause,” Lim explains. As she sums it up in a pensive tone, “It isn’t about adapting for them. It’s about accepting this fate and survival.”
WE BLEED THE SAME COLOUR
In the span of a year, The Picha Project’s simple, basic but brilliant idea has struck a chord with many, including a government-funded initiative Malaysia Accelerator Global Innovation Centre (MaGIC) who awarded them a RM30,000 seed to further develop the project.
Yet, the girls feel every day is a steep learning curve. What keeps them going is the change they see in the families they have been working with. “Now that they are earning their own money, they can save up and use it to maintain their household or go to the doctor or send their children to refugee school, which is the one thing most of them want,” Lee says.
Ling chips in: “They have a lot more self-confidence now and they are very happy to share their culture with Malaysians through their food,” she adds, observing that in their lives before becoming refugees, having large gatherings of friends and family was part of their culture.
Lee recalls how they would spend hours slogging in the kitchen and taking out extra money from their pockets to make sure everyone who comes to their home feels welcomed. “The refugee families say they don’t want to embarrass The Picha Project, so they must give only the best to their guests” Lee says, echoed by the laughter of her comrades.
The skies outside have settled into a singular shade of black, indicating the time for us to leave the home of our Iraqi host. After sharing their food and hearing their stories of uprooting from the land they love, its impossible not to be the least bit inspired to do something.
UNHCR has registered 150,430 refugees in Malaysia as of January this year; even if we can’t change policies that govern this sticky subject just yet, The Picha Project has taught us that we can at least start changing lives, one meal at a time.