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One Recipe for the Homeless

At the Romdeng restaurant. Credit: Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau/IPS

At the Romdeng restaurant. Credit: Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau/IPS

PHNOM PENH, Aug 16 2013 (IPS) - Following the death of his parents when he was just four, Samlain Chey, now 22, found himself living on the streets along the river near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Until he met a social worker from Mith Samlanh.

Mith Samlanh, which means ‘friends’, is a local organisation that facilitates reintegration of youth into their family, the public school system, the workplace and their culture. And it has found innovative ways of doing so.

It picks up homeless people and trains them as chefs at its training restaurants Romdeng and Friends. Besides what the restaurants do for the homeless, they do something for food – both have garnered local and international recognition for contemporary and traditional Khmer cuisine.

Samlain was 15 when the restaurants found him. They gave him a home and a future. “I was given housing while I learnt traditional Khmer cooking, and about the hospitality and service industry,” he told IPS. “After a month of learning I wanted to be a head chef and open my own restaurant.”

Upon completion of his three-year training, Samlain was offered a teaching position. As a former street youth, he feels he now has the opportunity to help others who are like him.

“For young people, it’s hard living on the streets because we don’t eat enough, there’s no security, we start using drugs and no one seems to care about our future.

“I’m happy working here because I’m also able to share my story, which gives the students the confidence they need to not give up.”

In Cambodia, 44.3 percent of the population of 15 million is under 18 years of age. According to official statistics, 35 percent of the population lives below the poverty line – which in Cambodia is 45 cents per person per day.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), between 10,000-20,000 children work on the streets of Phnomh Penh.

Seventeen-year old Bopha is one of them. She lived on the streets until she was 14. Bopha says it was difficult for her parents to support a family of eight selling cakes on the roadside in Phnom Penh.

“My life was very difficult because there were times when we couldn’t make enough money for food and I was unable to attend school,” Bopha told IPS.

“Things changed when a social worker from Mith Samlanh started visiting us on the streets to offer food. They asked me if I would be interested in gaining computer skills and learning traditional cooking. At first, I felt hesitant because I was afraid that if I left, I wouldn’t be able to help my family earn a living by selling cakes.” Later, she took the offer.

Finding work is a struggle. The economy has been unable to absorb the nearly 400,000 new labour market entrants per year.

According to the Ministry of Labour, some 200,000 to 300,000 youth migrate out of the country annually in search of low-skilled jobs due to lack of proper training or education – and lack of opportunities.

“Street children have lost their right to education,” Friends restaurant communication officer Menghourng Ngo told IPS. “For children aged 3-14 we provide informal education so that they integrate easily into the public school system. Youth aged 15-24 are more interested in employment, so we offer them vocational training at our centre.

“Our training focuses on developing confidence, self-respect, proper hygiene and hospitality skills. Upon completion, we assist in finding them jobs. Our nationality is Khmer so the programme also instils a sense of pride in the Khmer culture.”

The vast numbers of the young, and their vast problems, have caught political attention.

Approximately 50 percent of eligible voters are under 25, and calls to increase youth employment did well for the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in the elections last month.

Many believe that the 22-seat loss for Prime Minister Hun Sen in the elections sent a message to the ruling party that resentment among youth could deepen if their quality of life fails to improve.

“It’s my dream to see my family have a comfortable way of life. I would like to own a house and open my own business one day, sharing Khmer cuisine with the international community,” says Bopha.

“Since coming to Mith Samlanh, I feel more excited about my future. It’s very important that I was able to access their vocational trainings because now I will have the skills to make my dream a reality.”

 
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