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Catering start-up empowers Afghan refugee women in Delhi

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Refugee women from Afghanistan sell traditional dishes at an upmarket fair in New Delhi, India. © UNHCR/U.Kumar

NEW DELHI, India, March 8 (UNHCR) – On a cold Saturday afternoon at a packed cultural fair in New Delhi, hundreds of visitors check out stalls selling traditional arts and crafts, clothes, furniture and food. Moving from one stand to another, they are hit by a tempting aroma wafting from the far end of the fair.

Drawn by the smell, a line of people wait for their turn at the counter behind which four Afghan women are busy doing what they are best at – cooking up traditional delicacies from home. From aromatic Kabuli Pulao rice to Afghan dessert Firni, there is something for everyone to feast on.

Started last year by the women – all refugees from conflict-torn Afghanistan – their culinary venture has gained popularity among foodies in New Delhi, and is giving its four founders both financial independence and a measure of respect.

"It's so satisfying to see the contented faces of our customers," says Zameera,* a co-founder of the venture called ILHAM, a word which means "positive" in the Dari language. "It's not just about doing business but also earning respect through our work," she adds.

A widow who lost her husband in Afghanistan's ongoing conflict, Zameera fled to India three years ago with the scars of the war still fresh in her mind. Teaming up with her partners Naadirah, Zeenat and Sania*- who all share similar backgrounds – the women were initially fearful about starting over.

Helped by UNHCR, the UN Refuge Agency, and its partner ACCESS Development Services -a national livelihoods promotion organization – the four women together cooked up an idea that would give them and their families a measure of much-needed financial independence.

"I was working as a domestic helper and the money I earned was not enough to manage my household expenses, and then I heard about the livelihood programme offered by ACCESS and got myself registered," Zameera explains.

The ACCESS team worked with the women to identify their skills and aspirations, and found out that cooking came naturally to them. A culinary training programme was arranged for the team, where they picked up professional skills and an array of cooking techniques.

The organization also went a step further and helped the women to take their products to the market. "We wanted to create an income-generating activity for refugee women that recognize their skills, interest and capacities. When the idea of starting a catering line was floated, they accepted it with a spirit of alacrity," says Aditi Sabharwal, project manager at ACCESS. "Never did we imagine that their food would be such a big hit."

The women first experienced commercial success at a food kiosk held at the popular Dastkar fair in New Delhi last year. Impressed by their food, they started getting orders from embassies, and organized more food stalls at fairs in Delhi.

"Initially we were nervous as none of us had prior experience of working commercially at a public level. But gradually we acquired business acumen that enabled us to make use of our newly-acquired skills to establish a successful catering service," says Sania who believes cooking and selling Afghan food brings her closer to her home country.

The theme of International Women's Day – which is today – is achieving global gender parity – an issue close to these four women's lives. Before they founded ILHAM, they had no reliable means of supporting their families. In addition, most of them were struggling with physical and psychological problems, including depression and stress.

"This catering business has worked wonders for us. It not only helps us to be financially independent but it also is therapeutic. Especially for people like us who escaped war … this venture is also acting as a stress-buster and is building our self-esteem," says Zeenat, who came to India from Herat – Afghanistan's third largest city – with her six children in 2000, and now manages to pay rent and school fees thanks to the venture.

And Saina, who fled to India five years ago with her eight children, is clear about the benefits that the venture has brought her: "It's much better than medicine."

Five tempting Afghan delicacies offered by ILHAM

Manthu: Afghani dumpling filled with meat and onion, steamed and served with split pea sauce and garlic yoghurt.
Kabuli Pulao: Mouth-watering rice dish cooked with meat, vegetables, nuts and flavourful spices.
Mutton do Piaza: A semi-dry curry made with mutton, plenty of onions and spices.
Chabali Kabab: Soft and moist kebabs, served with Afghan flat bread.
Firni: Rice pudding is made with milk, sugar and spices, which is generally served cold.

*The names in the story have been changed for protection reasons.

By Shuchita Mehta, with additional reporting by Ujjwal Kumar, in New Delhi, India