I met her at the local library a few weeks ago. She was a strong Cambodian woman. A survivor of the Pol Pot regime. She fled her homeland with her family when she was nine years old and spent more than 10 years in various refugee camps near the Thai border before arriving in Australia via a stint in New Zealand.
She never had the chance to gain a proper education. What little English she learned before she came to New Zealand, and later Australia, was through an hour or two of lessons a week in the makeshift refugee camps.
Her name is Cindy Chen. And about 18 months ago she started up a social enterprise in partnership with the Khmer Association and Health Promotion, to support Cambodian women who are socially isolated, struggling with mental health challenges and abuse at home.
It’s a catering business called Amok. They recently managed to get funding from one of the major financial institutions in Australia to build a commercial kitchen for the group. Meanwhile, the local Bonnyrigg temple has opened its doors to Amok to use its facilities for free while they get the business established.
The opportunity to participate in the social enterprise is also available to women who just want to share their cooking skills in a supportive environment.
The idea of Amok grew when Cindy started managing a breakfast club at the local school her children were attending.
“I was there for the kids. They would come to me hungry. When I asked why they didn’t have any breakfast many would answer that there was no food at home and that their parents weren’t home. They had already left for the day to either work or find work,” says Cindy.
“When we finished feeding the kids, we would stay behind and talk. Women would tell me about the lack of employment opportunities for single mothers. Issues of domestic violence were raised among the volunteers. That’s when we came up with the idea of running a community kitchen to foster social inclusion. To provide an opportunity for women to share their stories with other women as well as access services available for them.”
The Community Kitchen was a success and women began to ask if they could earn money from cooking.
“That’s when the idea of Amok Catering was born,” Cindy explains. “We wanted to give these women a chance to socialise as well as gain some financial independence. We’re not here to make a million dollars. We’re here to share our lives and support each other. I hope we can build each other up, in skills, in confidence and hopefully find pathways to employment for many of these women.”
I was able to sample their cooking at an Open Mic night in Fairfield. The local church organised the event in support of migrants and refugees in their community. They wanted to give people who have survived conflict and persecution a chance to showcase their talents; an opportunity to hear their stories and foster greater understanding. Amok was their caterer and their food was delicious.
If there is one thing Cindy, this single mother of three, wants the women involved in Amok to know, it’s this: Never give up.
“Keep fighting. I know it’s hard. But as long as we don’t give up, there is a future for us.”