Afghan refugees are cooking up a better future in India

“Back home in Ghazni, I never used to cook. It was only after I moved to Delhi six years ago that I made my first biryani,” says Farhat. A single mother, she moved to India from Afghanistan in 2010 when the Taliban killed her husband, an Afghan Army officer.

She is a member of Ilham, a catering service that serves traditional Afghani dishes to people in Delhi. Ilham, which means “positive” in the Dari language, was launched in late 2015 by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and its partner Access. The initiative brings together seven women, all refugees from conflict-torn Afghanistan.

“There are too many restrictions on women there,” says Farhat, who tried to support herself and her six-year-old son with odd jobs after her husband’s death. “Neighbours started calling me a bad woman for leaving the house and I was afraid of attracting the Taliban’s attention. So I left for India.”

There are nearly 11,000 Afghan refugees registered with the UNHCR in India, mainly living in Delhi and bordering areas. The influx began in 1979 after the Soviets invaded Kabul and continued through the fall of the Taliban regime. The early refugees were mainly Hindus and Sikhs but with the security situation getting worse, more ethnic Afghans are coming in.

Historically too, India has been a favoured destination for Afghan traders or Kabuliwalas, who would travel across the mountains to sell spices, dry fruits and attars (perfumes), an association that has been immortalised in many Bollywood films and works of literature, including a popular short story, Kabuliwala, by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

“India is also an obvious choice because the government allows UNHCR mandate refugees to apply for long-term visas that regularises their stay and enhances employment opportunities and enables easier access to higher education,” says Shuchita Mehta, a spokesperson at UNHCR India.

As of August 2015, there were a total of 27,000 refugees in India registered with the UNHCR. The total refugee population across the country runs into well over 200,000. India’s liberal approach towards asylum seekers attracts large numbers but there is no specific policy or legal framework regarding refugees. The country has not ratified the 1951 convention on refugees.

Refugees registered with the UNHCR find it easier to get long-term visas and work permits. They are entitled to free education in government-run schools and free healthcare. Others face a miserable existence, confined to illegal settlements, where access to water and electricity is irregular.

Finding a steady, well-paid job is hard too. Zameera, a schoolteacher in Afghanistan, had to work as a domestic help in Delhi for years before she became a part of Ilham. “It was a struggle to communicate as I could not speak English or Hindi. I had five children to feed and educate so I was desperate,” she says.

She lives in Lajpat Nagar, home to a large number of Afghan refugees. The community is concentrated in small pockets in parts of Delhi, the ghettoisation preferable to living in a mixed colony where they stand out, their accents and clothes regarded with open curiosity, and occasionally some hostility.

“There is an urgent need for sensitisation programmes,” says Aditi Sabbarwal, project manager at Access. “People have no idea what they are fleeing from, their back stories, so there is a perception among some that they are freeloaders. The government should conduct awareness campaigns so people come to know what’s going on in their countries.” She points to stray comments on Ilham’s Facebook page pointing to the turmoil in Europe over the refugee crises and making the case that India should not take in outsiders.

The idea of starting a catering initiative was born after hours of talks between Access and the Afghan women enlisted with them. “People in Delhi are open to trying out different cuisines but there were very few that served Afghan food,” says Sabbarwal. “So we decided to try some dishes out at a fair last winter. We were sold out in less than an hour. We realised that starting this on a larger scale could guarantee them fixed employment and financial independence.”

The range of dishes is limited but great effort is taken to source the original ingredients to ensure authenticity. The American embassy in New Delhi is among their most regular customers.

The women cook the dishes at their homes and deliver to the designated pick-up centres. Given the growing demand, there are plans to set up a community kitchen.

“We make a profit of Rs 3,000-4,000 a month, which is much more than what we earned working odd jobs,” says Qadria, who left Herat in west Afghanistan six years ago after she was lashed in public for not covering her face properly.

“The orders are growing everyday and the money is good,” says Qadria. “I am able to pay my daughters’ school fees and buy them what they want. I feel happy when I see them enjoy the freedom I never had in Afghanistan.”

Ziyagul, the most vocal of the group, who has dreams of starting her own restaurant, says: “I feel so happy that I am able to share some of my culture with people here. When customers praise my dishes, I feel so confident. I realise that I am as capable and independent as any man!”

Some names have been changed to protect the women.

This article was published in The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/jul/21/afghan-refugees-are-cooking-up-a-better-future-in-india?CMP=share_btn_fb