Six years ago, the founding triumvirate of PichaEats – Kim Lim, Lee Swee Lin and Suzanne Ling (not pictured) were voluntary teachers of basic Maths, Science and English at a refugee learning centre nearby their UCSI University campus, when they noticed the number of students, aged between 10 and 15, who dropped out so that they can focus on earning a living for their families were high.
Previously known as The Picha Projects, (named after the 3-year-old boy Picha, who is the youngest son of the first refugee family from Myanmar to join the social enterprise), PichaEats aims to serve great food to a nation that enjoys its food, while adding on to the plethora of food delicacies those from the homeland of the chefs, such as Iraqi falafel, Palestinian hummus, Afghani dumplings and Syrian sweets.
However, its bigger goal is to provide work opportunities for the refugee families in Malaysia forced to leave their home countries to start a new life elsewhere. Tapping into what they do best – cooking, PichaEats seeks to give the refugees a chance to rebuild their lives, and regain their dignity.
Since January 2016, when the trio rolled out a business model, menu, marketing strategies and other elements to make PichaEats work as a proper social enterprise, it has partnered with almost 20 families, with around 100 people’s lives changed, from the pool of 168,000 refugees currently residing in Malaysia.
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During the Raya festivities, PichaEats hosted over 120 open houses, an experiential dining experience in which the customers and clients get to spend time getting to know the refugee families in their homes, before capping the day off with a hearty meal cooked in their kitchens.
“When we ourselves stepped into the house of our very first Syrian family, we were greeted with a lot of warmth and love, and a feast! We asked them to cook for one, but they ended up cooking for 10!” Swee Lin recalls the moment when the idea for PichaEats Open House was sparked to life.
“One of the reasons why we keep doing it is because the families really, really love it. Back in their home countries, they always hosted parties, cooked for their guests and invited people over,” she adds. “They love that people are having a good time in their homes.”
“We admire the resilience that they have, how they managed to survive so long and so far all the way to Malaysia, through the war and persecution that they faced back home and along the way.”
What do you think it is about food that contributes to not only PichaEats’ cause, but also, the general camaraderie of it all?
Swee Lin: I think food, in general, brings everyone together. It is the one thing that unites different people together. It brings the gap closer, and through food, people can understand one another better. When it all boils down to it, we’re not all that different: we still consume chicken and eggplants in our meal, and we still put salt in our food. It just shows how we are all the same, and we want the same things out of life.
What would you say are the more memorable things you took away from these families?
Swee Lin: We take away a lot of life lessons from the families every time. They come from a very different background compared to ours: some of them came from war torn countries, while others from poverty stricken ones; if we were put in those kinds of situations, I don’t know how we would survive!
We admire the resilience that they have, how they managed to survive so long and so far all the way to Malaysia, through the war and persecution that they faced back home and along the way. A lot of the chefs that we work with are very hardworking; all they want is to make sure that their kids are in school learning something, so that the next generation has a better life than theirs, even impacting someone else’s life for a change in the future.
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How do you keep yourselves motivated to run PichaEats, because the problem you’re dealing with here is something that can be considered never ending?
Kim: The first point of motivation would be seeing the changes made; it may only be for one person’s life, but that’s more than enough for us. Right now, we’ve partnered with almost 20 families, so there are around 100 people’s lives being changed – that’s more than enough motivation to keep us going!
Secondly is running PichaEats as a business that motivates us. Being in a business like PichaEats we have learned a lot, especially when we don’t have a business background ourselves. We are driven by learning and growth, and our team really appreciates it that we invest a lot on personal growth in the team. In PichaEats, our value is to put our team first. Without the team, then there’s no point trying to help other people. So, the team and company have to be stable – financially, mentally and physically… If you want to do good, you have to take care of yourself first.
“In PichaEats, our value is to put our team first. Without the team, then there’s no point trying to help other people.”
How aware do you think the public is when it comes to the refugee situation, especially in Malaysia?
Kim: Generally, there is more acceptance now, as more people understand and empathise on where the refugees are coming from and why they are here. People see how the refugees just want a chance and opportunity to work for their own lives. In terms of having the government do something about it, I think we’re still very far behind, but the perception towards these people is changing on a more general scale.
This article is part of the ‘Food for a Cause’ sub-feature first published in the August Man Malaysia August 2019 print issue