The Refugee Who Changed My Life

Sep 01, 2017 1 Min Read

Last year, Leaderonomics writer Tamara Jayne met up with several refugee families who had fled to Malaysia in an attempt to start their lives anew. The Picha Project gave them this opportunity by providing a way for these families to earn a living for themselves.

This year, Suzanne Ling, co-founder of The Picha Project was presented with the Chancellor’s Gold Medal Award during her convocation ceremony at UCSI University.

Here’s her speech to all the graduates and guests, with an important message she would like everyone to know:

“For the past five years in UCSI, I believe that many of us share similar memories from our university life – those sleepless nights rushing for assignment deadlines (or partying hard for some of us), the frustration of doing referencing and avoiding plagiarism, the tears of having our hearts broken, the worries thinking about grades or ECA submission deadline, the hard work we put in survive each semester completing assignments and swallowing notes.

Today, as we hold this scroll in our hand, we can all say that we have conquered all the challenges that university life has thrown at us, and we have made it to another phase of life.

Upon the completion of my studies last year, I started working full-time on my social enterprise with my two amazing business partners who are also UCSI students, Kim and Swee Lin. We run a food delivery and catering business where all our cooks are refugees in Malaysia who have fled war-torn countries. Around the world, there are more than 65 million refugees – which is the highest number globally since World War 2.

In Malaysia alone, there are 150,000 registered refugees who are highly deprived of basic rights. Refugees in Malaysia have to rent a place to stay because there are no refugee camps available but, at the same time, they are not allowed to work, their children cannot go to school, and they have limited access to healthcare.

Throughout the past year, we worked with refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq and Myanmar, and they became our family. From their stories, we learned about their daily struggle back in their countries – surviving explosions, walking through the jungle for days, getting beaten up for building schools, being shot while walking on the street, and losing their loved ones to the war.

Hearing what they have gone through – it made me realise that whatever “struggles” I have in my life are nothing compared to theirs. I thought that I was strong to “survive” university life and I’ve overcome challenges to be where I am today – I was so so so so wrong.

Image Source: Photo courtesy of writer

You see, my friends, we share the same world with people whose eye bags are not caused by sleepless nights rushing assignments, but sleepless nights fearing when the next bomb is going to hit; where tears are not caused by a bad breakup, but seeing children dying in front of their eyes; where worries are not caused by bad grades, but whether they can live through another day; where the phrase “I survived ” is not used when the semester ends, but when explosions and shootings happen, and they survived.

These are not people living in another world. They are sharing the same earth as us. They are young adults like us, sons and daughters of loving parents, they are people with hopes and dreams, but what makes us different from them?

Have you done something right that earned yourself a spot to be born in this safe country, to receive education and have a roof over your head? Have they done something wrong to deserve a spot to be born in a war-torn country, to have their families taken away from them and deprived their basic rights daily?

The scroll you have in your hand right now is the dream of millions of mothers around the world for their children. This is a gift that life has given to you.

Yes, you worked hard for this, and for that I applaud you – but do you know that there are people out there working 100 times harder than you, but will never get to the place you’re in right now?

If we are able to receive education, why can’t we do a little something for those who can’t? If we have a safe home, why can’t we do something for those who don’t?

Kim with Zaza. Photo courtesy of writer.

If we can get water and electricity with no hassle, why can’t we help those who have never seen a running tap to get clean water? If we can choose what to eat and what not to eat, why can’t we help those who starve daily to have a decent meal? If we have so much, why can’t we do what we can to help those who have so little?

At this very important event, I would like to share with you an important story of a person who is very close to my heart. His name is Zaza, and he’s a Syrian chef who joined The Picha Project a year ago. Zaza was an extremely hardworking man. Ever since he joined Picha, he would give his ALL to ensure that we serve our clients the best food ever. He would also give us suggestions and ideas to grow the business and reach out to more refugee families.

Last Christmas, we had an open house at his place, and he did not sleep for two nights just to prepare dinner because he said he wanted to make us proud. He loved us selflessly and was willing to do everything he could to grow Picha together. Zaza loved us dearly, and we loved him very much too. With his amazing attitude and good food, he became the best seller in Picha and he started settling down.

Zaza didn’t just give us great food, he also taught us great lessons too. He showed us how much he could give even when he had so little. Every time when there was an order, he would always cook extra to give it to the driver, the cleaners and the security guards. When he had no money, he would still host homeless refugees at his house, and borrow money to buy them food. When we made mistakes in the orders, he would always find a solution and calm us down. He truly showed us the spirit of loving and giving, even when he had nothing.

Unfortunately, there is always a twist in life.

In February this year, Zaza fell ill and got admitted to the hospital. Three months later in May, we lost him. Losing him was extremely painful not just to his family, but to the Picha family. We didn’t just lose a chef, we lost a friend whom we loved dearly.

Photo courtesy of writer.

Two weeks before Zaza passed away, the doctor said that he was recovering and could be discharged soon. I was visiting him at the hospital one day and he said that he wanted to cook Mandi Rice and give it out for free to people around the mosque during the Ramadan period.

He also specifically mentioned that he wanted to do this under the name of Picha but not his own name. In my head I thought, gosh, even on his hospital bed, this man was thinking about others.

If someone like Zaza – who went through war in Syria, almost lost his son, got cheated, became homeless, suffered from poverty and ended up in the hospital when life seems to be going well – if he could do something for others when he didn’t have much, I believe that we can do so too.

As you leave this hall, my challenge to you today is this, how can you be YOU and make a change in this world?

How can you – with your knowledge in business – build companies that can create social change? How can you – with your skills in IT – create technology that can end poverty?

How can you – with your experiences in pharmaceutical sciences – provide affordable medication and healthcare to those below the poverty line?

How can you – with the knowledge and skills gained help to make the world a better a place for everyone using creative forces like photography and poetry?

As hospitality and tourism professionals, can you change or improve existing practices and way of doing things to ensure the environment and society is taken care of as well? Using your design skills and talent, can you find creative solutions for some of the global challenges we face today?

How can you – with your knowledge and skills in engineering and architecture – build the things that matter and that change lives?

How can you – with your skills and knowledge in music – play songs that break boundaries and bring communities together?

Dear parents, how can you empower your child to make a change? I understand that parents always think, “how can you take care of others when you can’t take care of yourself?”, “how can you earn a good living if you’re doing social work?”

Suzanne Ling. Photo courtesy of writer.

Trust me, my parents reacted the same way when I told them that I wanted to work with refugees, but please rest assured that it’s possible to take care of ourselves while we take care of others too.

Dear university lecturers, professors and faculty members, how can we go a step ahead, producing competent employees who are also global change makers? How can we look beyond grades, assignments and presentations, and start looking at solving real-world problems?

Ultimately, the question is, how can we come together, do our part, and make a change in the world?

Let’s face it, there are terrible things happening in this world, and it’s not easy to turn things around.

But if three UCSI students can make such impact towards the refugee community within a year, imagine the power that we have, and the magic that we can make if all of us, the whole class of 2017, parents and university come together and start doing something for those around us.

If we just do a little more, care a little more for our family, our community and the others around us with whom we share this space, the world can be a much better place.

The world might seem to be spiraling downwards, but together, we can make it spiral upwards.

Once again, congratulations to all graduates! With this scroll, may we all start defining success not by the jobs we can get with this degree, but by the impact we have on others, and how many lives we can touch with the knowledge and skills that this degree has provided us.

Thank you.”

Continue your journey with us by checking out the video below on The 4 Areas of Mastery/Skills to equip yourselves as great leaders and start touching lives!

Do you desire to accelerate your growth? Look no further. Necole is a state-of-the-art learning platform that curates personalised learning just for you. To find out more about Necole, click here or email

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Tags: Social Enterprises

Suzanne Ling is the co-founder of The Picha Project. She co-founded the Picha Project (renamed PichaEats in 2020) together with Kim Lim and Swee Lin Lee (who works at Leaderonomics). This project, which led to the formation of a social enterprise, has won numerous awards all over the world for helping and supporting the refugee commmunity in Malaysia.

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