There’s change afoot down near the bottom of Street 13 in Phnom Penh. The long running social enterprise Friends International, or Mith Samlanh, well-known for its training restaurant and gift shop, is throwing its doors open, transforming the previously sheltered set of buildings into a wide, approachable, welcoming space. The campus – and walking about it certainly has a university-type feel to it – is vast. Nice spot for a party – but we’ll get to that.
I spoke to International Communications Coordinator James Sutherland about the new developments. “In the past, the doors were shut, and you’d go, ‘What’s in there? What is going on?’. We are giving people more of an insight into what we do. They think, oh, it is only the restaurant. You run a restaurant, you train young people.”
The vision is much broader. “The journey we take them on is through education and training,” says James. “Giving them skills, making sure they go to school, making sure they get jobs, making sure their mums and dads are able to support them. It is essentially giving people a helping hand, being a friend to them.” Friends takes a holistic view of each child’s situation – the family, the social and economic environment – and provide support. The Friends ‘N’ Stuff gift shop, for example, is stocked with items created by the parents of the trainees.
“It’s about offering more opportunities to all Cambodians, some of them who may be creatives, they may be frustrated creatives, they might have an idea but they don’t know how to get this idea out there.”
One of the new facilities, the Futures Factory, draws its name from history (in the 1960s it was a bicycle factory) and the potential of the young people coming through it. Alongside the hair and nail salon training spaces a makers market has been set up for young Cambodian businesses. “They will be striving towards a positive environmental impact, and other ethical impacts,” James explains. Also in development are a business incubation space, an art gallery, rehearsal rooms and performance spaces – again one is reminded of a university campus, a place where new ideas can be tried and experimented with, a crucible for budding arts and business initiatives.
Also opening this week in the space is the fourth Java Creative Café, which will take a literary slant. “It’s creating a safe environment. So yes, there’s a coffee shop. But they feel safe, it feels welcoming, and things take place, music, poetry, it’s a meeting place. This is a meeting place plus.”
The hope is to attract young Cambodians looking for exposure to opportunities that can be a springboard into the future, building on the Friends philosophy of blending the best of the NGO world with the best of business.
“Technically we are not an NGO, we are a social enterprise. We don’t mollycoddle. We give them a helping hand, a step up. Once you’re ready, off you go. The flexibility of our training programmes is going to come into this as well, so we have got to be flexible. You don’t want to do that, you want to try something else, okay.”
Outreach is also important. “It will allow us to talk much more to the visitors, the tourists and travellers who come through the city, who again often lack an understanding of the issues. We will be able to talk to them – when you give money to begging children what does it actually do? There are better things you can do.”
To mark the official opening of the Futures Factory, Friends is throwing a two-day party this Saturday and Sunday, from 4 pm to 10 pm, with an astonishing array of happenings and possibilities: discussions and eating and music and play.
A concert headlined by Small World Small Band will also involve many young performers from The Sound Initiative alongside dance performances and DJs. The Talk Series features a range of panel conversations with young and upcoming designers, artists and innovators on topics ranging from sculpture to comics to upcycling furniture to social change. The makers market will be up and running, as will the beauty and barber shops, activities run by ChildSafe Academy, including an escape room game, and a fashion challenge. There will also be a series of performances, exhibitions and installation by artists of the Creative Generation programme and a treasure hunt.
“It’s the next step,” says James. “And it’s breaking down some of those barriers too, the idea that there’s us and there are the others.”