Tea Leaf Garden Unable to work legally as refugees in Malaysia, Alif and his family forged their own path. When they arrived in Chicago, you — as a monthly donor — helped him find employment. Last month we spoke with Alif about his latest entrepreneurial project in Chicago: Tea Leaf Garden.


ALIF - My parents ran away from Myanmar. I think they came to Malaysia around 1977. I was born in the state of Kelantan in Malaysia. I lived there until I was about ten years old. We moved a lot. The life was a little bit hard because we didn’t have any IDs or papers. We were refugees.

We had the refugee card from UNHCR, but it was still hard. I don’t think we were allowed to work—so when the cops saw you, they wanted money. To take you to prison, you know.

I’m not saying it was a bad country. We were still given the opportunity to stay there, and we were thankful for that.

But when I got to like seventh grade, things changed. They didn’t allow anymore refugee people to go to the government schools.

So from that time, all my brothers and sisters— including me—couldn’t go to school anymore. The only place we could go were schools opened by UNHCR for refugees.

So I started working at age 13 or 14 doing electrician work with my uncle. We did phone lines, construction. I did that for like seven years until I came to the US. It was a good job. I had a Chinese boss who allowed us to work even though we didn’t have papers.

I loved playing online games too. I used to play World of Warcraft a lot at home during that time. I played it for like four years. It was really popular at that time, but I quit because you can spend a lot of time on that (laughs).

When I was a refugee, I also learned a lot from using the internet at home: video editing, graphic design, how to run a business, coding, apps.

A little bit here, a little bit there. That’s how I learned, and eventually that’s how this restaurant happened...

Working in the U.S.

My first job in Chicago was at Hilton Garden Hotel. World Relief found that job for me. After a year or two they put me in maintenance because they saw I could fix things. And I learned a lot, like how to install things and how to fix heaters. You can save a lot of money if you know how to do those things.

So when my mom said, can we open a restaurant? She knew I had the skills to do it. So I started the project. I installed the lights, replaced the toilet. I got my own computer, bought it piece by piece. I got a free open source program for restaurants - Point of Sale - so we didn’t have to buy software. We did everything ourselves.

It wasn’t just my mom who wanted to start a restaurant. Her friend Noor, who opened a grocery store on Devon two years ago, wanted to do it too. So they went in half and half.

I am just the brains. I’m not the boss here; I’m just helping. Maybe once it’s going I will move on from here. My wife and I are still thinking of maybe moving to Indiana in the future.


My wife’s name is Naznin. We got married two years ago. She did the design stuff for the restaurant. She was born in Myanmar. Then she moved to Thailand, then to Malayisa. So she knows more about Myanmar's culture and food than me, and that helped. Because I’ve never been there. She did all this (motions to the decor in the restaurant).

Naznin loves design stuff. She even has this model she made of her house in Burma. It’s in a wooden box. She says it looks just like her home. There’s sand and trees and chickens and stuff.

That’s her hobby, you know. She watches interior design videos. She likes seeing how people decorate their homes. She even joined this design group on facebook.

We have a baby girl. She’s seven months old. Her name is Ereena Sharleez, which in Arabic means beautiful. Every Friday, Saturday, Sunday, when it’s busy at the restaurant, my wife leaves the baby with my mother-in-law and comes to the restaurant to work.

Creating the Look

Naznin picked out the lights. And it was her idea to do the wall like this. We found this design at Michaels. A stencil. We just painted one pattern, then moved to the next. It took us three or four days to do this wall, and there’s still more to do.

We designed the menu with photoshop. Some of the restaurants around us, when you look at the menu, they don’t have any pictures or descriptions. It just says “biryani” or whatever. No pictures, nothing. But I’m from Malaysia. I don’t know their food. I didn’t want our menu to be like that.

So we got pictures of all the food, and we explain a little bit so people understand what’s in each dish. I also want to make an app that people can use to order stuff how they like it, how spicy, what to put in the dish, what they want. It’s a lot of work.

Cuisine and Craft

I like to stick to the original recipes and tastes. We try to find all the right ingredients. Noor imports original Burmese products for her grocery store. They have to drive pretty far south to this warehouse to pick it up. All our dishes are Halal. We get some things from a Thai grocery store on Argyle.

We do our best, and I think we get 100 percent to the original taste.

This is the only Burmese-Malaysian restaurant around. For us, having this restaurant is going to help a lot. For people from our community who arrive, they’re not going to be scared, like, “Where do I go? I miss the food.”

Now they can come here. Now, my community has Noor’s grocery store, the Rohingya Cultural Center, and this restaurant. Maybe next we’ll open a spa.

THANK YOU for laying a foundation of stability that leads to long-term belonging and opportunity for people like Alif and his family.

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