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A woman strong like an ebony tree

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Rina Roat, owner of Ebony Tree, also a clothing boutique, designs her own clothes. Photograph supplied

An ebony tree symbolises a strong tree which will not break, and this represents Rina Roat, the owner of Ebony Tree, a café and boutique shop in Phnom Penh. Since 2005, Ebony Tree has taught disadvantaged youth the skills necessary to make an honest living. In addition, Ebony Tree donates 20 per cent of the profits to charities such as the HIV Hospital in Takeo province and Apsara Orphanage.

I heard about Ebony Tree from a friend and decided to go one day for lunch. I ordered a popular dish, the kar pich-fried rice served with chicken, red onions, chili, eggs and another menu item – chicken and fried vegetables. As Rina was preparing the food, she talked about her childhood and the struggles she endured. I was captivated by her story and the inspiration she found to make a better life for herself.

Rina’s mother was raped and gave her up as a child, at the local pagoda. She was raised by the monks and the nuns at the pagoda, and there, Rina learned how to cook, clean and sew. The skills she learned later helped her survived and earn money as a cook, cleaner, bartender and even dental assistant.

She managed to save $300 while working as a Dental Assistant at the European Dental Clinic, and was able to start her own business. Rina rescued two women in the sex trafficking industry, taught them to cook, and with two bicycles, a rented room as a kitchen, Ebony Tree’s delivery café was born.

Growing up, Rina was alone most of the time, and didn’t have any friends. Her safe haven was a tree. This was where she slept, because she felt safe, and also, it was her imaginary parents. She would talk to the tree like it was her mum or dad, and hug it at night. The tree became not only her bed, but it represented her family. What made Rina strong were the criticisms by the parents telling their children not to play with her.

“The parents told their kids that I am a bastard child, and they should not play with me because I am poor, and I have nothing, and that I will become a prostitute,” she said.

She thanked the parents for those derogatory comments and has fought hard to prove to them that she will not become a prostitute. No matter how poor she was, even if she had no food to eat, or a place to live, Rina never pursued the path of prostitution.

Today, Rina is giving back to the community and giving sex trafficking victims an alternative means of making money.

Rina’s goal is to have her own orphanage in Cambodia and anywhere needed in the world.

“Through my own experience and the struggles and challenges I faced as an orphan, I want to help disadvantaged kids have the opportunity to make a better life for themselves, and to help them grow strong like the ebony trees in the forest,” she said.

For more information about Ebony Tree, contact her at Rinaebony@gmail.com.

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