The warmth of food to cope with the horrors of war back home. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)
| 5 min read

These Afghan Women Refugees are Cooking Their Way to a New Life

A group of women from war-torn Afghanistan, living in India, have come together to put the horrors of their past behind through the magic of food.

Using the recipes passed on to them from generations, these Afghan women are building a reputation for cooking and serving delectable food from their native cuisine to hungry Delhiites. And they’re making a living out of it.

Helped by UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency – and its partner ACCESS Development Services (a national livelihoods promotion organisation), these seven single Afghan women have started a catering service called ‘ILHAM’, meaning positivity in the Dari language.

Seven single Afghan women have started a catering service called ‘ILHAM’, meaning positivity in the Dari language. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)
Seven single Afghan women have started a catering service called ‘ILHAM’, meaning positivity in the Dari language. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)
The women chose this name because ILHAM is a way to find a ray of hope in their lives that have been devastated by negativity and cruelty.
Aditi Sabbarwal, coordinator-enterprise of the ACCESS-UNHCR Project

Rising to the Occasion

Since 2015, ACCESS has been working with the Afghans residing in Delhi – and through its work, has found several single Afghan women, either separated or widowed. Many of them were forced to leave their children behind in their native country and flee to India to seek protection.

Many of them were forced to leave their children behind in their native country and flee to India to seek protection. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)
Many of them were forced to leave their children behind in their native country and flee to India to seek protection. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)

Having recognised their culinary skills and passion, ACCESS helped them to showcase their food at the Crossing Boundaries exhibition at Dastkar, New Delhi, in September last year. The positive feedback received at the fest encouraged them further – after being trained in enterprise development, these women formed a small group enterprise called ‘ILHAM Afghan Cuisine’. Since November 2015, the group has received orders from the US Embassy, UNHCR and other agencies and has participated in different exhibitions at Dastkar – apart from many individual orders.

This tiny enterprise has two take away points – one near Sai Mandir, Khirki Extension and the other near Jain Temple, Bhogal.

This tiny enterprise has two take away points – one near Sai Mandir, Khirki Extension and the other near Jain Temple, Bhogal. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)
This tiny enterprise has two take away points – one near Sai Mandir, Khirki Extension and the other near Jain Temple, Bhogal. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)
In May 2016, the group catered at the TAJ Vivanta in Gurgaon where they prepared a meal for more than 250 people and were greatly lauded.
Aditi Sabbarwal

Trials and Tribulations

From the civil war to the Taliban reign, Afghanistan has constantly been in turmoil, forcing the natives to escape to neighbouring countries. Consequently, India has seen a substantial influx of Afghans over the past 40 years.

Despite UNHCR’s intervention, in terms of providing them with a refugee status, the Afghan refugees – particularly the Ethnic Afghans as opposed to the Hindu Sikh Afghans – continue to lead a difficult life here, with many being threatened out of the jobs they acquire or the houses they rent.

“Preparing our local cuisine and sharing it with others is therapeutic for us. It is better than medicine,” says Saifa. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)
“Preparing our local cuisine and sharing it with others is therapeutic for us. It is better than medicine,” says Saifa. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)

For the ILHAM women too, life hasn’t gotten any better since fleeing their homeland. They live in cramped houses without husbands in the capital. In addition, they have children who are very young – between 4 and 7 years of age.

Each woman is fighting demons – while Sameera was a teacher in Afghanistan, Zeba’s husband was a police officer who lost his life to the Taliban; Ameena is a divorcee whose husband is in Afghanistan and Saifa, who is separated from her husband, misses her children back in Afghanistan terribly.
The seven women currently prepare the food in their individual kitchens and spend four hours a day in this endeavour. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)
The seven women currently prepare the food in their individual kitchens and spend four hours a day in this endeavour. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)

“We are trying hard to build a future for our kids through adversity. Preparing our local cuisine and sharing it with others is therapeutic for us. It is better than medicine,” says Saifa.

The Yummy Fare

Kabuli Pulao – rice cooked with meat, vegetables and native spices – is a specialty. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)
Kabuli Pulao – rice cooked with meat, vegetables and native spices – is a specialty. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)

The seven women currently prepare the food in their individual kitchens and spend four hours a day in this endeavour. Whenever an order comes in, the woman who best cooks the item is roped in. The neat menu reads of Afghan specialties like Manthu, an Afghan dumpling filled with meat and onion, Chapali Kababs, moist kebabs served with Afghan flat bread, Kabuli Pulao, rice cooked with meat, vegetables and native spices and finally, sweets like Khajurs and Ashak. The team is determined to add more gradually, says Sabbarwal (aditisabbarwal@accessdev.org) who coordinates the catering orders for the group.

Sweets like khajurs are famous. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)
Sweets like khajurs are famous. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)
I have ordered the kababs and Kabuli pulao twice in the last month and cannot stop raving about the food – it is so very good!
Madhuja Sharma, a resident of Malviya Nagar

Apart from financial independence, regaining confidence and invoking happiness in doing what they love, the enterprise has helped these women find an identity in the country. Overwhelmed by the praise and the flurry of orders they are receiving, they are inching a little closer to the term ‘home’ in the metaphorical sense.

Ashak is yet another popular sweet item. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)
Ashak is yet another popular sweet item. (Photo Courtesy: Aditi Sabbarwal/ACCESS)
They have started earning – which is not much right now, but the cycle has begun and is extremely gratifying. They have catered in huge events and are being complimented for the good job done. They are going out of their houses and doing things which they never thought they could.
Aditi Sabbarwal

Truly, this 100 foot long journey from pain to ‘Ilham’ is bursting with flavour.

(The names of the Afghan women were changed for security.)

(Runa Mukherjee Parikh has written on women, culture, social issues, education and animals, with The Times of India, India Today and IBN Live. When not hounding for stories, she can be found petting dogs, watching sitcoms or travelling. A big believer in ‘animals come before humans’, she is currently struggling to make sense of her Bengali-Gujarati lifestyle in Ahmedabad.)