This restaurant chain is changing the lives of struggling Cambodian kids

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Through The Intrepid Foundation (our not-for-profit) we’re constantly teaming up with local community groups and NGOs doing some pretty amazing things. One of those groups is Friends International, a social enterprise that’s changing the lives of young people in South East Asia…in the most delicious way possible. Friends International has a chain of local-run restaurants that offer placements and vocational training for at-risk kids in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Indonesia. Each restaurant and training program reaches out to marginalised teens and young people, some of them living on the street, and teaches them basic skills like cooking, service and what it takes to run a successful restaurant. It’s the best kind of charity: one that actually empowers communities and achieves real change.

In fact we liked Friends International so much that we set up our own Eat for a Cause campaign ($3 of every Food Adventure we sell in 2016 goes straight to the restaurants), and the fruits of those efforts are beginning to take shape. Later this year, Friends International will be opening a brand new restaurant in Siem Reap, called Aharathan Me Phtas (translation: Aharathan means canteen and me phtas is someone who takes care of the family). It’s a city that’s probably on every traveller’s South East Asian Bucket List (thanks to the incredible Angkor Wat just down the road), but one that very few visitors understand. Poverty and begging are commonplace, and in some cases the lucrative tourism industry actually makes things worse for Siem Reap’s at-risk children.

We sat down with Laura Knight from Friends International to chat about the new restaurant opening and everything they have achieved so far.

 

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1. How did Friends International come about?

In 1994, Friends-International (FI) began supporting children and young people who were living and working on the streets of Phnom Penh. Since then, we’ve initiated programs in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Indonesia, and supported partner programs across the globe, in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

The Kaliyan Mith programme began in Siem Reap in 2005, to address the urgent needs of marginalised children and young people in the city. Our overall mission is to protect children and youth from all forms of abuse and support them to reintegrate into society as functional and productive citizens. Kaliyan Mith is a big part of that process.

2. What are some of the day-to-day issues you are trying to address through Friends International programs?

Our programs work with vulnerable and marginalised children and young people, including children living and working on the street, migrants, drug users, youth in conflict with the law, children affected by HIV and AIDS, runaways and school drop-outs. We take a holistic approach by supporting children as well as their families or caretakers, so we can address the long term needs of vulnerable communities.

Siem Reap is a growing tourist hub. In the eyes of many rural Cambodians, it represents hope. The increasing wealth in the city attracts a large number of families in the hope of a better life. Unfortunately, with limited skills, young people often find themselves in dangerous situations and without any opportunities to earn a stable income. Marginalized families are often forced to send their children to work on the street (scavenging, begging, selling items to tourists, etc.) instead of going to school. Without stable income and housing, people are more vulnerable to chronic illness, abuse, drug use, crime, violence, and exploitation.

Unemployment among marginalized and unskilled youth is a big issue in Siem Reap. It’s crucial that we work with these young people and their families to offer them future opportunities. Likewise, supporting caretakers by improving their skills and chances of employment is vital for ensuring that kids are able to attend school.

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3. You’ve built several training restaurants across South East Asia to support at-risk youths. Why are restaurants so effective as a form of social enterprise?

Our business model’s been really effective, it’s true. There are now eight TREE (Training Restaurants for Employment and Entrepreneurship) in four countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Ethiopia). Establishing training restaurants as social businesses not only gives practical skills to vulnerable young people, it allows profits from the restaurants to be invested in the students and programs which support them.

Training can also be adapted to reflect the needs of the local labour market, or designed to respond to specific needs of the trainees. Running the workshops as a social business also allows students to gain practical experience and customer feedback. It’s hands-on stuff that they’ll be able to take with them anywhere they go, and many of our graduates have done just that.

4. Do you have a few favourite success stories?

I sure do. In Siem Reap, the Marum restaurant opened in September 2012 and since then over 200 at-risk young people have received hospitality training. We’ve managed to place about 140 placed in full-time employment. One of our students, Dara* was 19 and worked in construction, collecting rubbish on the dumpsite, when a social worker from Kaliyan Mith spoke with her about enrolling in vocational training. Without much money, Dara had been unable to complete Grade 8 at school. She didn’t have many skills that she could use to find employment. Following counselling with the social worker, Dara decided to enrol in training at Marum because she liked cooking and wanted to work in a hotel or restaurant. During her studies, Kaliyan Mith provided support to Dara’s family so they could get enough food and Dara could focus on her training. After completing the training, we helped Dara find a job with a regular salary so she could support her family. Dara and her family are happy now – she has a skill she can take with her forever, and she doesn’t have to rely on dangerous and unreliable work in construction or on the dumpsite.

RELATED: VISIT A KALIYAN MITH RESTAURANT ON OUR CAMBODIA REAL FOOD ADVENTURE

Another student, Sophat*, was living in an orphanage and was struggling at school. He had lost motivation and was planning on dropping out. The orphanage put Sophat in contact with Kaliyan Mith, and we spoke with him about the different vocational training options available. After a tour to find out more, Sophat decided to enrol in our hospitality training at the Marum restaurant. Despite his initial nervousness, Sophat proved to be an excellent student. He studied hard, was open to new ideas and was committed to become the best he could be. Sophat completed his cooking training in just three months and spent the next 12 months developing his service skills. Following graduation, we helped Sophat find work in a boutique hotel. We hear he’s still keen to keep learning and developing skills so one day he can become the service manager at his hotel.

*Names have been changed for this article.

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5. How is this year’s restaurant different from other restaurants you have set up in the past?

Kaliyan Mith’s new restaurant, Aharathan Me Phtas is a different social business model from the existing TREE restaurants. While we’ll still provide quality training, Aharathan Me Phtas will focus on training the parents and caretakers of vulnerable children and young people. Giving training to these guardians will help them become more financially stable and better able to support their families.

The restaurant will mainly cater for the local market, with delicious home-cooked Khmer food (anyone who’s travelled through Cambodia knows what I’m talking about!). Graduates from Marum and other TREE businesses tend to gain employment in existing restaurants and hotels. We’re hoping that graduates from the this new restaurant will be more likely to also set up their own small, home-based food stalls. The training will be a bit shorter than usual (about 3-6 months), so that parents and caretakers can quickly develop the skills needed to support their families. We’re also setting up an on-site preschool facility, so mums can learn without having to worry about the kids.

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7. When will the restaurant open? And (just as important) what are some of the local dishes travellers will get to taste?

Our latest restaurant is currently being set up, and is scheduled to open at the beginning of September. It will be open Monday – Saturday for breakfast and lunch, serving local Khmer food. Aharathan Me Phtas will offer a traditional Khmer breakfast of rice with grilled meats and will have four daily lunch specials, including soups, grilled meat and fish, fried dishes and salads. The lunch menu will change daily offering a selection of fresh, mouth-watering meals throughout the week.

Located on the Siem Reap River, Aharathan Me Phtas will be a great spot to try genuine, local Khmer cuisine – just like our students eat at home. The restaurant is also next door to our new training beauty salon, Phka Kravan, so customers can access quality, beauty treatments before or after they eat.

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