PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Four years ago Srey Nim was stuck in a life that few would envy and she herself did not want.
She spent her days on the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, selling flowers and water to tourists. It was hard work, day after day in the heat making little to bring home to her widowed mother. To escape, she would leaf through magazines looking at the pictures but unable to read the words.
Then came the turning point. An outreach group with Friends-International invited her to play sports with a group of kids. They made her an offer: If she wanted off the streets, they would give her an education and teach her a trade of her choice. She accepted.
Today, the shy and smiling 17-year-old is a student at Romdeng restaurant, which is owned by Friends-International. She works hard and one day hopes to open her own restaurant featuring both Khmer and international cuisine.
“Before, I was lonely,” she said, speaking through a translator. “Now I feel I have a brighter future. I know how to read. I love to cook.”
Srey Nim is one of many success stories at Friends-International, which asked the students to use pseudonyms for this story to protect their privacy. There are students who now own their own restaurants, who teach cooking classes and who have broken the cycle of poverty. The organization offers vocational training in nine areas ranging from mechanics to hair styling to welding, but it is their cooking and hospitality program that gets all the attention. More than 100 students are currently training in the organization’s working restaurants giving them important experience.
In turn, customers enjoy a delicious meal and get the opportunity to meet the people their support will directly benefit. Friends the Restaurant offers international tapas-style plates and is staffed by advanced students. Mid-level students train at Romdeng, which features Khmer food.
On any given night at either establishment, the reservation book is impressively full and people are buzzing about. Student waiters are flanked by their teachers as they take orders and greet guests. The kitchen is a bit more chaotic as line cooks work quickly to fill orders and prepare drinks. Customers seem excited to be there and for good reason. The cuisine at Romdeng and Friends the Restaurant are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on Trip Advisor’s list of places to eat in Phnom Penh.
The success of the restaurants was not without long hours and days, according to hospitality and business coordinator Gustav Auer, who was tasked with getting the two eateries up and running 13 years ago.
“It was an adventure,” Auer said. “We never expected it to become so successful and so big.”
Today, the restaurants are 65 percent self-sustaining, with groups like UNICEF and the Skoll Foundation making up the rest. Friends-International has since added a café in Phnom Penh, a restaurant in Laos and is publishing a series of cookbooks. They sell bags made by local women, including Srey Nim’s mother, and candleholders made by welding students in the restaurants’ gift shops.
Auer didn’t expect how attached he would become to the students. In many cases teachers became substitute parents to the kids. Auer pointed to the example of a student who emailed him earlier that morning asking if Auer would attend his upcoming wedding.
“(When he and I met) he was living above the sewer,” he recalled. “He had training with us and started to work for a few restaurants, and now he owns his own business, his own restaurant. It’s actually quite a famous restaurant in Phnom Penh. I’m very proud of him.”
For every success story in the program, there are a hundred more waiting to happen on the streets of Cambodia’s capitol, where an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 kids live and fight to survive. The fluctuation in numbers is due to harvest season and various natural disasters in the region.
But it’s a tough and dangerous life for children no matter their numbers. They are at high risk for physical, psychological and sexual abuse, HIV infection and drug abuse.
Sopheap, 24, knows the risks all too well. A year ago he was living on the street addicted to ice and yama, a pill laced with meth. Friends-International placed him in drug detox and vocational training.
Now he’s working alongside other youths he knows from the street in Romdeng. He has a place to sleep, and medical and dental care. It’s a far cry from his days on the street.
“I think I’ll have a good job in the future and be able to make good money,” he said through the translator. “I hope other kids get the chance as well.”