• "Everyone needs someone to empower them, and these women give me power," says Cindy Chen. (Global Sisters)
Chef Cindy Chen says it was her father's passion for food that helped her family survive life in a Thai refugee camp after fleeing Pol Pot's Cambodia. Now she's using cooking to empower women in Western Sydney.
By
Cindy Chen, Presented by
Daisy Dumas

15 May 2018 - 1:10 PM  UPDATED 15 May 2018 - 1:10 PM

I know what hunger feels like. I was five when Pol Pot took over my country, Cambodia, and we fled to a refugee camp on the Thai border. My father came up with a plan to help us survive the camp: steamed buns. He made nom bao from our tiny, very limited kitchen. We didn’t have many vegetables, so he used jicama and added it to pork for the filling. He made dough from scratch and I helped him wrap the buns. I still remember we used a frying pan over a fire to steam the buns and he made a steamer from bamboo. He was really creative, he could create something out of nothing.  

It was 1975 and I remember waking up to the smell of those bao. I will never forget the texture, they were smooth and very puffy. Because of the lack of food, everything we ate tasted so nice, but nothing was like these. He sold them and they are what kept us alive. My mum and dad were not at home much, so I cooked for my brothers and sister. We didn't have a lot, but I learnt that if everybody has food in their stomachs, they can do better.

We moved around different camps. We were separated from one of my three brothers, so we lived in one camp for five years just to see if he would turn up. We had no birth certificates or documents and waited for ten years before getting refugee status. It was too dangerous to leave camp as a lot of girls were raped, so I was forced to hide at home. I didn’t really go to school. We were illegal, so in the daytime, we hid from the soldiers. In the nighttime, we hid from the thieves.

When I was 18, we were sponsored to live in New Zealand. Our sponsor abandoned us so we had to wait another nine months to leave. It was the most difficult and hopeless time I ever had, but during that time, I learnt a lot. Using an English dictionary, I taught myself English and my brother and I started translating for embassies. We worked 13 hours every day.

I got my citizenship and came to Australia in 1994 because I thought I had met a dream man. But I was wrong. It was an emotionally abusive relationship, I cried by myself every day

I lived in New Zealand for five years. I got my citizenship and came to Australia in 1994 because I thought I had met a dream man. But I was wrong. It was an emotionally abusive relationship, I cried by myself every day. I trusted him because he was Cambodian and from refugee camps, too, and we had been through the same hardship. I thought, ‘I’m a wife, I’m a mother, I have to be responsible.’ So I waited. After five years, I realised, ‘This is not a life. Who am I?’

My second marriage developed into very bad domestic violence. I couldn’t leave because of his death threats. I lived like that for nearly 16 years. One day, I asked ‘Why can’t I die now?’ It was like a movie, I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. I lost myself, I lost everyone. But I thought, ‘If I suicide, he’s going to be happy and get everything, especially my kids.’

My husband didn’t know, but during our break-up, I secretly started volunteering, making breakfast at my children’s school in Fairfield. I realised that these kids really needed us. That made me think of when I was starving in the camp. In the winter, I made a lot of soup at home to take in to the kids. A bowl of pumpkin soup with toast for breakfast makes a big difference to a child’s life. I took over the program with the support of other Cambodian mothers. I thought, ‘I’m back.’ That was two years ago.

I realised it’s not just the kids who need a hand, the volunteers themselves need help, too. Like me, these women didn’t have anything to do and many had similar childhoods to mine. I thought, ‘Let’s set up a commercial kitchen so these women have something to do for a couple of hours a week.’ I already did some catering from my home and I wanted to share my experience with these women so that they could support each other and maybe earn some extra money for their families. They struggled, some didn’t have skills, some couldn’t speak English, some didn’t have qualifications.

We are going to build our own commercial kitchen, so that more women in Fairfield will be able to join an employment pathway. So far, we have 16 Cambodian women, all over 40, working with us

That’s when we started Amok, a catering business and social enterprise. Amok is the Cambodian word we give to our fish curry wrapped in banana leaves. It’s a special food. Together, we cook using the spices and herbs we grow in our backyards. We borrow a commercial kitchen and teach each other how to save, how to make fresh food, how to manage finances. This is about more than cooking.

I forgot about Dad’s nom bao, but after he passed away and I started catering, I remembered those buns. They meant a lot to me but I couldn’t find any that tasted like the ones he made in my childhood. So I began experimenting. I couldn’t count how many times I tested different recipes. And one day, that was it! I was over the moon, I never thought I’d find that taste again. They’re my favourite dish at Amok.

Through Global Sisters, an Australian charity, I won funding and support for our catering project. We are going to build our own commercial kitchen, so that more women in Fairfield will be able to join an employment pathway. So far, we have 16 Cambodian women, all over 40, working with us. I’m very proud. Everyone needs someone to empower them, and these women give me power. Without them, I couldn’t do it.

I don’t have a good education and I’ve known my entire life that I’ll never be happy after what I have been through. But if I can, I want to help other women to have a better life.

If this story raises issues for you, contact Lifeline on 131 114, beyondblue on 1300 22 46 36, or call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). 

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