LIFE as a refugee isn’t easy anywhere in the world. Fleeing your home country in risk of persecution, traveling in often uncertain and dangerous circumstances, and not knowing what awaits you when you arrive in a new country.
But in Malaysia, where life for refugees has been described as a “living hell,” the challenges involved in establishing a new life are considerable.
Malaysia has close to 150,000 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and yet little to no support is offered by the government, and significant barriers stand in the way of refugees becoming self-reliant.
Having not ratified the 1951 refugee convention, and no national refugee law or policy framework defining their rights and status, vulnerable refugees are left in limbo. The lack of legal status means they are denied access to work, education and healthcare, as well as making them susceptible to exploitation.
In cities like Kuala Lumpur, it is the small, grassroots initiatives that are often the lifeline the community so desperately needs.
While the government must be commended for allowing people into the country, the quality of life is poor and the policies usually confusing or poorly executed, refugee rights activist Mahi Ramakrishnan told Asian Correspondent.
Speaking about grassroots organisations and their impact, Mahi said: “They are run by people who actually have lots of communication with the refugee community. This is the big difference with how the government is trying to do something.”
This close proximity, she says, enables them to understand the frustrations of the community and “tailor sustainable livelihood projects to their needs.”
This is certainly the case with The Picha Project, a three-woman set up founded on the desire to help.
— Inés Rigal R (@Ines_Rigal) February 12, 2018
With no business or F&B experience, Malaysians Kim Lim, Swee Lin, and Suzanne Ling fought against the odds to set-up the charitable lunch delivery and catering business that sources only refugee cooks to produce their food.
“We serve as a platform and solution to empower refugees who can cook in Malaysia to cater to the public,” Lim told Asian Correspondent. “When they deliver authentic recipes from wherever they come from to Malaysians, we empower them and they earn a sustainable income.”
What started out as a desire to help one family – that of a six-year-old Burmese refugee and the company’s namesake, Picha – quickly became a network of support and independence for many refugees stuck in the limbo of life without work.
Half of all proceeds go straight back to the families cooking the food. The other half goes into growing the business and extending their reach to help others.
They have now grown to assist 12 families whose livelihoods depend on them.
— The Picha Project (@pichaproject) July 16, 2017
“Before I worked with Picha, I was so afraid as I couldn’t even pay rent for my house. My job wasn’t permanent and the work wasn’t daily,” said one mother working with the trio.
“The project helped me to be financially independent and I am now even able to enter my son in school.”
Picha Project founders recognise the importance of their work, but also acknowledge that setting off down this path is not always easy. Given the legal limbo of refugees, organisations like theirs have to be creative when navigating the legal loopholes and in finding people to invest. But the efforts are more than worth it, says Lim.
“Some people were in debt, some cannot afford hospital bills, some can’t send their kids to school. Even putting food on the table every week was a real worry,” she said. “We see that less and less now (due to Picha).”
The Picha Project has ambitious plans to not only help more families within Malaysia, but to reach beyond the borders where vulnerable people want the opportunity to shape their own destiny. Having just won the Malaysian leg of the Chivas Venture, a US$1 million fund to support socially conscious start-ups, it looks like the sky’s the limit.
But more initiatives like the Picha Project are needed to plug the gap left by the shortcomings of government, says Mahi.
By providing the tools for refugees to take control of their situation, it will be projects like this that work towards the UNHCR’s goal of making refugee communities more resilient and self-reliant.
And the work they’re doing is considerable.
“They are helping them to be self-sustainable, to be financially independent, to feel empowered, to feel a sense of identity, and feel a sense of belonging,” Mahi said. “It is so important for the refugee community.”