It started in September 2013. Suzanne Ling, Lee Swee Lin and Kim Lim were all students at UCSI University in Kuala Lumpur and had worked on a college project with the refugee communities in Kuala Lumpur. After their project ended, they felt they needed to continue helping the refugees. The following year, the trio started Hands of Hope Malaysia, a platform for college students to volunteer to teach refugee and special needs children.
“The fact that they (refugees) don’t have rights to education or any basic rights just made us so uncomfortable. We couldn’t turn our backs on them. We had to do something,” says Lee who graduated with a degree in accounting and finance last year.
When they noticed a drop in the enrolment of refugee children early this year, the girls visited their students at their homes.
“That was the first time we saw how they lived and how they struggled to put food on the table. That’s when Kim came up with the idea of using the women’s cooking skills and turning it into a business opportunity,” explains Ling who graduated with a degree in psychology.
Under The Picha Project, the girls identified refugee families who can cook tasty meals that would appeal to Malaysians. At the same time, they make sure the cooks meet the required health standards. The girls supervised the cooking and packing of the food initially till they were confident the cooks adhered to their hygiene and safety rules.
In the beginning, marketing their venture was limited to emailing their friends and contacts, urging them to buy meals from The Picha Project.
“We had to be thick-faced about it,” admits Ling.
They started with one family from Myanmar.
“We started with one of our students’ family. The mother was hesitant at first. But we assured her that we’d support her every step of the way. When she saw how much people liked her food, her confidence grew. And when she started earning for her family, it empowered her. Now, she can handle up to 170 orders a day and has become an example to the other refugee women in her community,” says Lee, beaming with pride.
The girls’ hard work has borne results. In six months, The Picha Project has trained six refugee families and have catered more than 3,000 meals. They approached companies who ran events or training programmes for catering opportunities and prepared lunch boxes for offices.
Recently, The Picha Project received a boost when it was accepted into the the MaGIC (Malaysia Accelerator Global Innovation Centre) accelerator programme, a government-funded initiative to help start-ups get off the ground. After four months of training to build a successful business, they will get RM30,000 seed funding to develop their business.
“Getting accepted by MaGIC boosted our confidence. It was a turning point for us. It affirmed our belief in this venture and we want to eventually replicate this business in other countries,” says Ling.
They also hope the project would change public perception about the refugee community. Each lunch box comes with a little tidbit of information about the family who cooked the meal.
“One of the Syrian ladies we work with is a teacher who speaks French fluently. Another has a degree in English Literature who had a good job back home. When they left, these refugees left their lives behind. Here, nobody cares about their past achievements or their qualifications,” says Ling.
Starting a social enterprise wasn’t something they envisioned doing but the three young women cannot imagine doing anything else now.
“I wanted to work with marginalised children. But I wanted to do my masters in the United States first … and then this just happened. But I am so glad I started this. I can do my Master’s later on if I still want to,” says Ling.
For Malacca-born Lee, working with refugees has changed her outlook on life.
“I come from a conservative Chinese family. My parents have always wanted the best for me. To them, that meant finding a good government job that paid well so that my future would be secure. But now that they see what I am doing, they are behind me,” says Lee, the quietest of the three.
Kim is the only one of the three who is not working full time on The Picha Project. She is a guitarist and composer who works on local movie production, composing musical scores.
“She worked on Ola Bola,” interjects Lee. “She won’t share that with you so we have to.”
Although the enterprise is still getting off the ground, Ling, Lee and Kim are all confident that they have made the right decision in choosing to help refugees. “It has taught me to appreciate life more. And to do as much as we can to make a difference,” shares Kim.