On a popular Phnom Penh strip, lined with the usual Khmer street food offerings – chicken feet, fried noodles, palm sugar juice – a bright red food cart stands out.
Behind it stands Mohammed Rashid, pouring oil onto a hot plate and stretching dough with a satisfying “thwack” on a metal surface. At 28, Rashid, a Rohingya Muslim, has had a more circuitous route to Phnom Penh’s street food scene than most.
Rashid fled Myanmar in 2008 for Malaysia, where he remained for five years before beginning a perilous journey towards Australia. He travelled to Indonesia before boarding a boat – with some 70 others – bound for Christmas Island. He’s forgotten a lot about that sea passage.
“I am thinking about my life, because if I stay in Malaysia, I do not have any way to build up my life, so I go to Indonesia, to go to Australia,” he said. “It was very far – you forget there’s land there.”
That journey – and the Australian government’s resolve to forbid asylum seekers from arriving on Australian shores by boat – saw him detained on the island prison of Nauru for two years, before he took up a deal to come to Cambodia.
Last month he established “Rashid’s Roti on Wheels”, and most nights he sets up shop under harsh fluorescent lights. He cracks an egg onto the hot fried bread, sprinkles some chicken and cheese, and folds it into a wrap with cucumber and tomato.
It’s far from the burning villages of his homeland, and from the island detention camps.
His new business venture is also a stark departure from his early days in the Kingdom, where he was plagued by illness and was in and out of Cambodia’s fraught hospital system.
More than two years later, he’s grown happy and well, and has thrown himself into the business of bringing comfort food from his homeland to Cambodian streets.
“When I am in my country, I make this food,” he says. “When I came here, I wasn’t thinking about anything to do with food, but now I decide to do this business myself.”
Mohammed is here because of a controversial deal struck between the Australian and Cambodian governments in 2014 to resettle refugees detained at Nauru. Just seven refugees have relocated from Nauru to Cambodia, but of those, only three remain – Mohammed, and two Syrian men. One of them, Abdullah, also runs a restaurant serving food from his homeland, called Mideast Feast.
“I’m well now, very well, but before, we can say, I’m not well in my feeling, in my heart,” he says.
Since his departure, scores of refugees on Nauru took up a new offer, more economically attractive than moving to Cambodia – resettlement in the United States. Rashid holds no bitterness about that deal or any desire to live in the US.
“My friends who went to America, they worry, they asked me why I came here,” he said. “I said: it’s OK, no problem, it’s your life.”
Mohammed can’t return home, as others have. In the past year, Rohingya villages in Myanmar have been ravaged by a fierce campaign of ethnic cleansing. More than 650,000 Rohingya fled to Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh since August 25. Mohammed’s family – his mother, four sisters and two of his brothers – were among them. Rashid, the youngest, says he has another brother living in Brisbane – part of the reason he attempted to reach Australia in the first place.
“They are all in Bangladesh. When they go to the village, the Burmese military were shooting at them, and burning their homes, in all the villages,” he said.
“I ask them if they are worried, they say, ‘We don’t know what happened . . . we don’t know why they do this.’ They come to fight.
“After that they decide, if they are living here, they will die. They’re scared to leave, but the military, they’re killing, they’re beating.”
They were living in a Rohingya village a short distance from Maungdaw township, Rashid says, when they were all forced out. They lost everything, their houses burned. They will remain in Bangladesh, “for how many days, how many months, how many years? They don’t know,” Rashid says.
“It’s very bad, and a very long duration,” he says, referring to his home. “But because they also lose the house . . . how can I go back there?”
“I’m also sad, if I’m expressing my feeling.” While he said his health had improved drastically, and that Australia had supported him here, still, he feels a sense of limbo. He wants to bring his family here, to find a wife, and to be able to travel beyond Cambodia’s borders.
Like Abdullah, Rashid says he was promised a family reunion – one that so far is unfulfilled. But he would like to bring his family to safety in Cambodia, and return to his homeland when the violence abates.
For now, his nightly pop-up food cart – and his attempts to win over Khmer tastebuds to the foreign sweet and savoury roti – is providing a sense of purpose. It’s a sliver of stability in his life, the last decade of which he has spent in the pursuit of a safe place to call home.
“If they like it, I’ll give it to them – add cheese? No egg? Vegetarian? I will make a special,” he says, with a smile.
Rashid’s Roti on Wheels serves sweet and savoury roti (priced from $.50 to $2.50) Monday-Saturday, 7-11pm, on Sothearos Blvd opposite Meta House.