Pholin’s cafe life is the Kiwi dream


When Pholin Nem ar­rived in New Zealand he had $20 to his name.

‘‘It was in case I needed to buy any­thing at the air­port,’’ the softly spo­ken Cam­bo­dian refugee said. ‘‘I didn’t spend it at all.’’ Af­ter 25 years he has built him­self the Kiwi dream, own­ing a home and a cafe in Tawa.

‘‘I thought to my­self, ‘I am go­ing to make it’, and then I made it.

‘‘Some peo­ple came at the same time as me, but they still have noth­ing. You have to have a plan for your life, and know what step you are go­ing to do, step by step.

‘‘Not just wait­ing. You have to start from $1 to $100 and then you get $1000.’’

It’s a far cry from the life he es­caped in Cam­bo­dia dur­ing the civil war.

‘‘It was ter­ri­ble and there was fight­ing all the time. They wanted me to be a sol­dier and I didn’t want to hold a gun to kill any­one. And if you are not go­ing to kill some­one, some­one would kill you.’’

Nem said the night he es­caped across Cam­bo­dia’s bor­der to Thai­land, aged 24, it was rain­ing bul­lets.

‘‘All the shoot­ing when we ran across the bor­der was like rain. So many peo­ple died. You just ran and kept run­ning and run­ning.’’

He snuck into a refugee camp, where he learnt to speak English, and waited for a coun­try to ac­cept him, try­ing first the United States then New Zealand.

It’s ob­vi­ous Nem is proud of BB’s Cafe as he speaks about what led him to buy it.

‘‘I saved a lot of money be­cause I was used to work­ing hard in Cam­bo­dia and here. I worked seven days a week and 12 hours ev­ery day; only on public hol­i­days did I stop. I just work like crazy and even when I am sick I am work­ing, work­ing.’’

When he ar­rived in Auck­land, he spent six months on a course to learn about New Zealand and how to live here. He then moved to Welling­ton, where he started work­ing at Wool­yarns in Lower Hutt. He stayed there for 16 years. The bul­lets and empty pock­ets are a long way be­hind Nem th­ese days, but he’s pass­ing on what it taught him to his 17-year-old son.

‘‘When I be­gan I had to work hard. It was not easy.

‘‘That’s what I teach my son; You have got to work hard ev­ery day and don’t waste your life.’’

Nem is con­tent with how his life has turned out, but dreams of buy­ing an­other cafe. I would like to just carry on the cof­fee shop.’’

New Zealand ac­cepts about 750 refugees a year.


Pholin Nem came to New Zealand with noth­ing in 1990, but now owns a cafe.

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