Despite COVID, this former refugee manages to keep business going and female team employed

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When COVID hit and events were cancelled, Cindy’s Cambodian food catering company was hit hard. Determined to keep her migrant, female team employed she’s found a way to pivot her business and stay afloat.

It was 5.30am on a Friday in Sydney’s west, and Cindy Chen and her team were already in the kitchen.

Preparing all the ingredients for the day’s cooking takes time, she explained, so it’s best to start early.

The women who were busy chopping, rolling and frying - are part of Amok Sisters, founded by Cindy nearly two years ago. More than a catering business, it’s a social enterprise that aims to help Cambodian migrant women become financially independent, while providing a space for them to come together and share their stories as well as their cooking.

On this particular day, the women were busy preparing some of their signature snacks – soft pork buns, sweet sesame balls fried golden brown, and vivid green pandan cakes, as well as their namesake dish, amok – a fragrant coconut fish curry flavoured with turmeric, galangal and kafir lime lives, served in a banana leaf.

Cindy
Gavin Blyth

It’s a stark contrast to the food Cindy grew up eating. When she was five, Pol Pot rose to power in her homeland of Cambodia. His brutal communist regime would oversee a genocide that resulted in the deaths of nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Cindy’s family fled, and she spent over 10 years in refugee camps before leaving for New Zealand and later, Australia. Food was scarce, and the profound, agonising hunger she endured as a child and a teenager still gives Cindy nightmares decades on. It’s that experience that drove her to connect with other Cambodian refugees – and also to revel in the abundance of food in her new home, and to share the traditional Khmer dishes she herself missed out on growing up.

When Cindy went to start Amok Sisters, she had help from Global Sisters, a not-for-profit that assists marginalised women establish their own business. They provide business education and coaching, and recently launched the online Global Sisters Marketplace to help support women impacted by the pandemic. The online store stocks select products and experiences from some of Global Sisters’ 609 supported businesses.

Cindy
Cindy
Gavin Blyth

Covid hit Cindy's business hard just as it was beginning to thrive. With no opportunities to cater events during lockdown, work is still in short supply.

 But Cindy said she’s determined to keep going. Not wanting to leave her colleagues out of work, or social connections, they’ve pivoted to baking Christmas coloured biscuits and pandemic friendly, pre-packaged lunchboxes, as well as a relaxing facial steam blend available online

Into the future, Cindy hopes to keep growing the business and keep helping disadvantaged women gain financial independence. “That’s what I love, to work with all these women,” she said.

“They are so talented, they have so much to give. It’s just – we need the opportunity.”

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Growing up in the ruthless Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, Cindy Chen was no stranger to hunger. But she didn’t expect to see so much of it in Australia.
Growing up in the ruthless Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, Cindy Chen was no stranger to hunger. But she didn’t expect to see so much of it in Australia.