How food has come to rescue of Afghan women refugees in Delhi

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The seven women dressed in vivid salwar kurtas chatter buoyantly and incessantly, creating a hum that’s periodically punctuated by high notes. They have gathered in an apartment in Delhi’s posh Jangpura Extension on a Wednesday afternoon to discuss their next business.

“No more complaining,” said one of them in Dari. “This is a time of barkat [blessing] for us. Things are finally looking up for us and we couldn’t be happier.”

The headscarf-wearing women are refugees from Afghanistan who made their way to India at different times in search of asylum and a better life. Six of them were widowed in the death-dealing Afghan conflict, and all of them now live in cramped apartments with their children. And yet not once do they voice bitterness or anger.

One reason for this contentedness is a catering service they’ve been running since last November, under the the guidance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and ACCESS Development Services, an organisation that builds livelihoods. Called Ilham, the project aims to make the women self-reliant through their culinary skills.

The word on the project has already spread. Every week the women get more orders than they can accept. Already, they have been asked to cater at events.

Manthu is one of their popular creations. It is a steamed dumpling filled with ground mutton, onions and spices, topped with homemade yogurt and sautéed vegetables. Other favourites are Mutton do Pyaaza, Kabuli Pulao and delicious Khajoors, a sweet delicacy in the shape of donuts. People also desire their sweet paper-thin fried pastries dusted with powdered sugar and pistachios called Gush-e-feel.

Back on their feet

Aditi Sabbarwal, 30, the coordinator for the enterprise division of ACCESS, has been working with the Afghan women since November 2015. She is certain the women caterers will do well, but worries about their safety.

“We have trained them in understanding the Indian market and tastes,” she said. “The women have undergone intensive enterprise development programme training. But we still have to hold their hands through the initial steps.” Sabbarwal insists that Afghan women not be named because of the “threat to them”.

The women, for their part, are uninhibited. They are willing to answer any question as long as it’s not about their age.

At the Jangpura meeting, Qaseema is appointed the interpreter of the group. A confident woman who looks to be in her mid-thirties, she was a teacher in Kabul before she brought her four children to India for refuge. They now live a single room flat in Lajpat Nagar. “My husband was killed by the Taliban. They would have killed my children and me too if I hadn’t left.” Her grey-green eyes reflected a searing pain.

Nadia, one of the first four who started the group, has eight children to worry about. “My eldest kids already speak English and Hindi,” she said with pride. “When people from Afghanistan visit they ask them to talk to them in Dari but the kids hesitate. They are teaching me also to converse in Hindi.”

Nazgul says her husband divorced her when she was in Afghanistan, and she was forced to flee to India with her four kids. She breaks into tears when asked how her children are dealing with their adopted country. “I am the only provider for them. I have already used up all my meagre savings. This project is helping me get back on my feet.”

‘Cook more and more’

Young Khadeja joined the group late, with her five-year-old daughter in tow. She used to work in a parlour in Afghanistan’s third largest city, Mazar-i-Sharif, and sought refuge in India three years ago. As they entered the room, the daughter greets Sabbarwal with a shy salaam.

“The women bring their younger kids to the events,” said Sabbarwal with a smile. “We know them as well as their mothers.”

Farzana is the last to join the meeting. She had errands to run and a young boy to look after, she explains. She has a long chat with Qaseema and asks her to translate. Qaseema takes a moment to gather her thoughts and conveys that Farzana is very happy with the work she is doing. “I feel more independent than I have ever felt before in my entire life. People appreciate our cooking. Aditi tells us we have so many orders and people enjoy our food. I hope we cook more and more.” As Qaseema speaks, Farzana beams.

Sabbarwal says that the food cooked by the Afghan women is tasted before it is collected by the ordering parties. “We are still handholding the ladies. Even though they want to, we don’t encourage them to do house deliveries yet. They can barely speak Hindi. We wouldn’t want them to get lost.”

Why did they pick the name Ilham? Because it means “positive”, the women say.

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