Trigger warning: Mentions of suicide, sexual harassment, PTSD

Lilyma Khan aspired to be a chef since she was three years old. Her inspiration — watching her father cook for the neighbourhood.

But life had other plans. She lost her parents in quick succession when she was only five. Her older sister died by suicide in a few months.

“My older brother went down a spiral of depression and started using drugs. Due to his addiction, he sold our house, and my younger brother and I had to live on the streets,” says Lilyma.

Five-year-old Lilyma was forced to go pick up waste from the streets to get a meal. “We would initially stay at someone’s house in our slum. They would wake us up at 4 am. We would be given a meal only if we brought them bags full of scrap,” she recalls.

She says that she spent three years foraging for food from dustbins on the streets of Defence Colony, New Delhi.

“Those were the worst days of my life,” says Lilyma, who today works as the head chef for Dear Donna in New Delhi.

As a young girl, she had to protect herself from the roving eyes and sexual advances of men. She recalls coiling in fear and sleeping behind old mattresses at shops for her safety.

The turning point in her life came when she was rescued by an NGO ‘Kilkari Rainbow Home’ when she was 13. Here, she got access and the opportunity to give wings to her dreams.

After finishing Class 12, she was able to work at a restaurant thanks to the Creative Services Support Group (CSSG) — a charitable organisation that provides skills training to underprivileged young adults.

While Lilyma was hired to cook for the hotel staff, she learned more due to her ambition. The chefs mentored her and taught her from scratch.

Starting in 2012, she has worked in three to four restaurants and grown up the ladder due to her hard work, grit and talent.

Today, Lilyma leads a team of 35 people at Dear Donna. She has bought her own house and land in Noida and Ghaziabad.

“It’s very easy to take a wrong turn and fall into bad company. Have the courage to move ahead in life. From being hungry all the time, I am now able to feed many. You too can achieve your dreams,” says Lilyma.