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For Cambodia’s Street Children, Restaurants Serve as Career Training Ground

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The exterior of Friends Restaurant in Phnom Penh.

CREDIT: Flickr/ Lostgenstories

Past the Killing Fields and the sunny riverside promenade known as Sisowath Quay, past vendors hawking postcards stamped with photos of Phnom Penh’s most famous sites, a doorway cut into a low concrete wall emblazoned with graffiti marks the place where Seila, a 22-year-old Cambodian woman, got her lucky break.

“I was living on the streets and addicted to drugs,” said Seila, once one of the 10,000 to 20,000 children estimated by UNICEF to be working on the streets of Phnom Penh. Then officials from a local charity, Mith Samlanh, offered Seila help. They gave her shelter, entered her in a rehab program, and – when the toxic drugs had left her system – enrolled her in a culinary program to train to be a chef at one of Mith Samlanh’s three restaurants.

The Khmer Rouge laid waste to Phnom Penh in 1975, and thirty percent of Cambodia's residents remain below the poverty line. But today's Phnom Penh is a city in full-fledged recovery, its downtown streets filled with tourists.

Capitalizing on the movement towards socially responsible tourism, charities like Mith Samlanh have opened restaurants with attached culinary and hospitality-training programs for underprivileged youth. When Mith Samlanh opened its first restaurant, named Friends Café, in February 2001, it was the first of its kind. Now there are at least 10 similar NGO restaurants in the city.

“Tourism is growing in Cambodia, and there are many young people in need of quality training and employment opportunities tailored to their needs," Charlotte Arno, an advisor to Mith Samlanh, told Campus Progress.

Students receive training in food service from experienced chefs and waitstaff, but they also learn English and soft skills like punctuality. "It’s a model which we believe works well," said Arno. 

In 2011, Mith Samlanh provided vocational training to 580 young people and placed 136 into employment. Those kinds of numbers have won attention from international institutions. 

Training restaurants can “change a lot in the living conditions for children and youth suffering extreme poverty,” said Lody Peng, Programme Assistant for the International Labor Organization.

Americans might not have to wait long to see similar programs in their own backyard. Catalyst Kitchens, a social enterprise spun out of Seattle’s FareStart, has committed to launching 50 new culinary job-training programs for disadvantaged men and women in the next five years.

Zach Duffy is a reporter for Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @zachduffy.

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