After a ten-day winter break, our group met back up in Singapore for our first course of our second semester. Following a few days in Singapore, we took a bus to Malaysia where we began our New Year and celebrated 2018 and the new adventures, opportunities, and lessons it would bring. Before I knew it, we were presented with a new opportunity: we had the option of going to a dinner that was through an organization. We were told to look up the organization and decide if we wanted to attend so we could give them a head count. The organization is called Picha Project. I looked it up and skimmed the website quickly thinking it was amazing and something I would even want to be involved with.
When we arrived, we were invited into an apartment. We all sat on the floor surrounding a beautifully printed carpet that our food laid on top of. Before we began eating, the co-founders introduced us to the Picha Project, a social enterprise which provides opportunities through using food, cooking, and culture to empower refugees and sustain their living and provide a living as they learn how to live in a new country (Malaysia) that doesn’t allow them to be fully integrated, or even work to earn a wage. Picha Project is an organization giving a platform for refugees to offer catering, cooking classes, boxed lunches among their other options. While it wasn’t a part of their main goal, I think Picha Project inherently inspires others to be passionate, empathetic, and encourage people to fight for and stand up for marginalized communities.
We met our host, a refugee from Afghanistan. He stood before us to tell us about the food we would be eating; it was food he was familiar with, the food he grew up eating. His kind eyes and calm facial structure overwhelmed me with a kind of sadness, inspiration, and familiarity. I felt like I knew him already.
He joked with us and said he would let us eat so we don’t get hangry, and once we are finished eating he will tell us more about himself and the Picha Project. We all dug in.
The food was the best food I have eaten in Kuala Lumpur, and honestly could be the best food I have eaten during the trip. The flavors were rich but not overwhelming. The colors were beige, yellows, and reds. The chicken was so tender, so perfectly cooked. And our clumsy spills were forgivable.
Once we were finished eating, we had the privilege to hear about his life. His courage allowed him to share his experiences as a refugee; he missed his home, his five daughters, his wife, and his stable life he had to leave. He said that he used to once have an office (a job), a car, and a routine. But one day he woke up as a dishwasher in a new country, with nothing else but his memories. One of the co-founders of the Picha Project told us it costs $10,000-$20,000 USD to bring in a whole refugee family into the country together, making it impossible for many to flee their country with their whole family leaving our host to begin his new life alone. The memories of his family and home, he said, made this already hard adjustment harder. He was honest with us and told us he sought help and took medication for these feelings he was having in this new country, away from his family, comfort, and happiness; his memories seemed to be suffocating. Eventually, when the medication was too expensive, he had to find a way to feel okay in his new life. He told us that he realized he had to live in reality and not dwell in his memories or his past, as that is what weighs him down. And with this mentality and mindset, he was able to move forward finding acceptance to his current situation. With an open mind, hope, and his three friends, he went to the Picha Project for help. His story was so inspiring and something I could never imagine having to navigate.
Throughout the night, and even still today, I feel overwhelmed by an unexplainable emotion: a combination of guilt, gratitude, sadness, inspiration, and happiness. One thing that I did find hope in, was when one of the co-founders said some families found comfort in no longer being surrounded by faces that are painted with fear when they walk down the streets in their hometown. So even when I can’t help but think these families are in such a hard position, they, themselves are able to find such a positive outlook, just as our host did. I think this outlook is something we can all learn from. I need to remind myself that these marginalized communities are not just passive victims, but they are surviving and adapting; I learned that night that they too have agency.
I will never be able to accurately explain how impactful and amazing this experience was, nor will I be able to accurately portray what our host was feeling. While this is an obvious notion, putting a face to a story or statistic is more powerful than reading an article in the news; it was more powerful than I could even imagine. It really woke me up. And meeting him, hearing his stories and his perspective was really eye-opening and amazing but just as hard and painful to hear. I was having racing ideas of how I could help, how can I fix everything right now. I had to walk away from the experience understanding that I can’t fix everything immediately. I felt so helpless. It was hard to hear about hardships so many people are going through, meanwhile, I find the littlest inconvenience to complain about. The A/C isn’t working, the WiFi is slow, I have too much homework. These little complaints are things that are actually just privileges. This night was a reminder that I have so much to be grateful for, so much privilege, support, access, and happiness in my life. While Trumps America is pretty lame and America has a lot of progress to make, I still have a lot I am grateful for, even America. And most of all, I hope to stifle my complaints, because this opportunity I am on, is an opportunity that very few get, and with that, I am reminded that everything I experience, is a privilege to cherish.
I am learning to thrive in the sweat and broken A/Cs, find other things to focus on when the WiFi is “slow,” and get amped that I get this homework while I am abroad so I get to learn as much as I really do want to. And, I get to meet all these wonderful people around Asia continuing to inspire me to be a better me and inspiring me to make changes to the world when I can. They say studying abroad is a life-changing experience, and they were right.