In a dilapidated but beautiful colonial building in central Yangon with yellow and pink walls, Myat Thu clears the table of a middle-aged European tourist and asks him, “Was the food OK?” “It was delicious,” the customer beams, and Myat Thu confidently strides back into the kitchen.
When Myat Thu, 19, had a big fallout with his violent father, he realized he had to leave home but he had nowhere to go. One option would have been a perilous life in the streets, but he remembered having seen Link Age Restaurant on Facebook, a restaurant borne out of an initiative that provides shelter to dozens of at-risk young people and trains them to cook. The restaurant welcomed him and the shelter in the same building has been his home for the past four months.
Myat Thu is one of the 48 young people that Link Age Restaurant has trained since Khin Hnit Thi Oo opened the establishment in March 2011, after winning a grant worth 15,000 Euros from the French government for the project. Although there are no official figures about how many street children are in Yangon, the numbers have been steadily rising due to migration from rural areas, a population boom, and economic hardships. Many children beg in the streets, hustle for small jobs, and some also turn to crime. Girls and young women are especially vulnerable to human trafficking or forced sex work—a harsh, yet prominent risk for many poor Burmese.
Although Hnit Thi Oo herself was never in the streets, she is no stranger to poverty and hardship. Born to a poor single mother, Hnit Thi Oo spent her childhood without a stable home, moving around in the homes of her uncles and aunts, not always feeling welcome.
In 1988, when she was 9 years old, the schools in Myanmar shut down for a year. With nothing else to do, Hnit Thi Oo spent the year learning English. She put herself through the rest of school by working as a waiter for 13 years. In 1996, things got better and Hnit Thi Oo got into a university—but this time the government shut down the universities for four years. Hnit Thi Oo used the time to learn French and supported herself by working as a tour guide.
Hnit Thi Oo’s resilience and hard work eventually paid off: In 2002, she won a full scholarship from the French government to get a bachelor’s degree in business administration in Paris. Afterwards, she earned a master’s degree in rural development management in Thailand, where she specialized in migration from rural to urban areas in Myanmar.
However, her passion remained food and giving back to young people. Although Link Age Restaurant is her brainchild, she still waits the tables and works alongside the kids in the kitchen. As Link Age is a non-profit, Hnit Thi Oo continues to work as a tour guide and a translator to support herself.
“You could say this is the perfect platform to use all my skills,” this true hustler says with a smile. “I am running a business and most of these children came from rural areas to Yangon.”
Link Age Restaurant’s revenues pay salaries and education fees for her staff and also cover the cost of running the shelter.
“The waiters and chefs you see here are a small part of our project,” Hnit Thi Oo explains. “If they are under 15, we don’t let them work here. We send them to school and pay for their education. We try to find other ways of supporting them.”
“Street children are complex humans like you and me,” she adds. “Not all of them are necessarily interested in becoming cooks. We only train those who have genuine interest and enthusiasm.”
Hnit Thi Oo collaborates with a master chef to show these young people how to make Burmese cuisine. The grilled eggplant salad, lemony soups, prawn curries, and sweets prove that the young chefs have not only enthusiasm, but a rare talent and passion.
Each trained and successful young chef has the potential to create a butterfly effect in his or her community, Hnit Thi Oo explains. She’s particularly proud of one former student who went back to his hometown in the troubled Karen state and became a top chef there and now training others. He helped his brother and sister finish high school thanks to his salary.
“Many of the trainees end up supporting their siblings and families,” says Hnit Thi Oo. When these individuals see that they create something beautiful in the kitchen and feed people, it also leads to fundamental shifts in their identities, as they no longer perceive themselves as “only a street child.”
Myat Thu says the daily satisfaction of seeing happy customers, his love of food, and the motivation to help his siblings, who still live with his violent father, are what keep him going. He hopes to work at a cruise ship one day and support his family. Hnit Thi Oo is confident Myat Thu will soon be ready for a job like that.
“My favorite dish is sweet and sour chicken,” Myat Thu says with a shy smile. “I hope I’ll cook it for my sisters too, one day.”