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FEATURE STORY June 19, 2018

Malaysian Youth Help Refugee Families Rebuild Lives with Homecooked Food


A refugee under the Picha Project cooking traditional Afghani food for customers in her kitchen.

Photo credit: Gerry Fox


  • The Picha Project is a social enterprise that provides refugees living in Kuala Lumpur an opportunity to earn income by cooking and catering traditional food for events; they are especially busy at festive times like Ramadan.
  • After noticing many refugee children dropping out of school, the young entrepreneurs behind the Picha Project started the enterprise four years ago and today, they continue to have a close relationship with the 12 refugee families involved and their clients. It is the first organization of its kind in Malaysia.
  • In recognition of World Refugee Day, the World Bank Hub in Malaysia celebrates two years of partnership with the Picha Project to help empower refugees.

From her small kitchen in Kuala Lumpur, Rania is cooking up a feast. Already, her home is filled with the tantalizing smells of Syrian food.  Her biryani (spicy rice dish) and fattet magdoos (Middle Eastern casserole dish) are her best dishes – a family favorite and a big hit with her customers. The month of Ramadan has ushered in a steady stream of orders from customers.

Rania is one of the refugee mothers under the Picha Project – a social enterprise based in Malaysia that aims to empower the refugee community living in the city center through a food delivery and catering business. Day in and day out, meals are cooked in the homes of refugee families and delivered to hundreds of customers at events.

The refugee families under the project come from areas like Myanmar, Iraq, the West Bank and Gaza, Afghanistan, and Syria; joining the project has enabled them to earn a steady monthly income for basic necessities, and put their children through school. Most of the families are entirely dependent on the money earned from their cooking. For many, it’s also a great way to keep in touch with other refugee families, maintain their culture, and build a valuable support system.

For Rania, the project helped get her back on her feet. A few years ago, her husband, who was also a chef for the project, passed away unexpectedly, leaving behind a pile of hospital bills she could not afford. This was when the organizing committee of the Picha Project stepped in. The young team, led by Lim Yuet Kim and her friends, began to crowdfund for money from their customers through social media. The response was instantaneous and within days, they had collected enough money to pay off her husband’s medical bills.

“It’s been difficult trying to rebuild our lives here, but with the women from the Picha Project constantly helping us, life has been much easier. My whole family has benefited from being a part of the project,” Rania says. “I feel happy that through our traditional homecooked food, we are able to connect with Malaysians. I enjoy working with the team and when I cook, I do it with love and passion.”

Lim and her Picha Project team serving customers. (Photo credit: Gerry Fox)

For Lim and her friends, this is all in a day’s work. They have been working closely with refugees for a long time, originally as volunteers at a refugee center, before deciding to start their own enterprise.

“We saw how these people put so much effort and care into cooking their native foods. After tasting it, we thought: why not give them the opportunity to share this with others? This gave birth to the Picha Project,” Lim said.

Named after a 3-year-old boy from Myanmar from the first refugee family who joined their team, the Picha Project has since served a total of 52,000 meals. Communication proved difficult at first as the organizers could only interact with the refugee families through sign language and drawing. Since then, student translators from nearby universities have come on board to help, and some of the younger children have picked up English to help converse with their parents. Either way, the four say that the language barrier could never stand in their way.

Despite only being in their early 20s, pioneering a start-up on their own hasn’t intimidated the Picha Project team. “Sometimes, we get tired. We think – would it have been better for us to have gotten desk jobs instead? We thought about this a lot when we first started the project and had to do most of the deliveries and catering ourselves. But it is ultimately the community that keeps us in check. We see the impacts of our work on their lives and it keeps us going.”

“We want to break the misconception that many people our age have: that when you work for the good of society, it must mean you are poor. We’re running an impact-driven business that is sustainable, and we have good long-term relations with all our refugee families and our clients – that’s what matters,” Lim said.

The refugee families and customers gathering to eat during a Picha Open House event. (Photo credit: Raja Teh)

For the past two years, the World Bank Hub in Malaysia has maintained a close relationship with the Picha Project – enjoying their food, and breaking fast together with the project families for Ramadan each year. This World Refugee Day, the Hub celebrates this long-term partnership that ensures refugee families get to rebuild and sustain their lives.

As Ramadan draws to an end this year, Rania and the other refugee families find themselves preparing for Eid. Coming together with Lim and her team of Picha Project members, they celebrate yet another successful month. It is a small gathering made up of an eclectic mix of food from around the world. For refugees like Rania, this is her family away from home.