Cooking their way to independence

SOUTH KOREA • Ms Jihey Lee was a successful marketer at an IT company when she decided to give it all up in 2008 and set up a social enterprise helping marginalised women.

"I felt sceptical about the way I made money, with contents full of sensationalism. As a woman, I did not want to participate in such anti-feminist work, so I started a new business," Ms Lee said.

She opened a restaurant in a small corner of Sangsu-dong, Mapo-gu, convinced the food business would be the easiest point of entry for socially vulnerable immigrant women without educational backgrounds or personal networks.

Today, her social enterprise Oyori Asia has trained women across three Asian countries, helping them find their feet again.

Many are like Ms Ngoc Nhon, who arrived from Vietnam in 2006 to marry a Korean, and gave birth to a child shortly after. But her marriage fell apart because of her husband's gambling addiction. By 2010, she was a single mother with a son she needed to support.

Two years later, she met Ms Lee, and began training to be a cook. Last year, she opened a Vietnamese restaurant, Asian Bowl, which she runs with another young single mother from Vietnam. Her dream is to settle in South Korea while making food from her homeland with other women like her.

In the 1990s, rural Korean men who could not find a match began taking wives from countries such as Vietnam. In the last five years, 128,864 international marriages were registered, and the number of divorces hit 50,853.

The ultimate goal of Oyori Asia is to support women like Ms Ngoc Nhon to become self-reliant. Said Ms Lee: "The reasons women in poor countries choose international marriage are mostly economic. If they had been self-reliant in their homelands, they would not have had to come to Korea to marry an utter stranger."

Ms Lee has also extended Oyori's reach to Nepal, where Cafe Mitini in Kathmandu has offered work and barista training to women.

Dawa Dabuti Sherpa, who worked and trained for four years, expects to open Cafe Mitini No. 2 next month. She said: "I dream of becoming a good barista through the programme."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2017, with the headline 'Cooking their way to independence'. Print Edition | Subscribe