Banana leaf restaurant gives refugees new meaning to life

BY A. RUBAN

KUALA LUMPUR, April 15 — After spending years moving around from one refugee camp to another in Malaysia, ten refugees have now found employment at a banana leaf restaurant at a high-end township off Jalan Dungun here.

They are paid RM1,300 a month, receive free food every day and all-paid for accommodation at a nearby hostel, all thanks to Sahana banana leaf restaurant co-founder Sathiyah Ettickan.

“My heart goes out to these people after seeing what is happening in countries like Syria and Myanmar, so I took some of them in to give them a decent living,” Sathiyah said during the launch of the restaurant.

Sathiyah said she is still training some of the refugees who are mostly Rohingyas and Pakistanis.

There is also a disclaimer at the front door of the restaurant informing patrons that waiters may not be able to speak fluent English and Malay.

“I have about 20 staff in total and these refugees are the front-liners as in they are the waiters.

“We are still training them to speak the language and learn basic cooking like making roti canai,” she said at the launch of the restaurant.

The coconut oil bru coffee, turmeric chicken and lamb shank biryani are among the specials at the restaurant.

Sathiyah (in the middle) posing with some of her staff, including refugees, at her new banana leaf restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. ― Picture by A. Ruban

Sathiyah said she was willing to take the risk to employ refugees as full-time staff although it was against the law to do so in Malaysia.

“Some of these people have families in the countries they come from and they need money to send home each month.

“I am willing to take the risk in employing them so these people are not neglected,” she said.

Sathiyah said the idea of employing refugees came to her when she was pregnant with her second daughter

“When I saw how kids in Syria are suffering, I was pregnant with my daughter and thought to myself that I wouldn't want my daughter or any other children to go through such predicament.

“So I named this restaurant after my daughter, Sahana, who is six months old now,” she said.

There are about 150,000 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with United Nations Refugee Agency in Malaysia as of February this year.

However, the population of unregistered refugees in the country is far larger than that.