Women Afghan refugees creating their own destiny with food

Ilham member Farhat and her son Zia. (Photo: Shivangini Gupta. Clicked after taking permission from Farhat)

As per United Nations’ latest report, more than 70 million people globally have been displaced in 2018. The number is highest in the last twenty years. For millions of men, women and children life is never the same outside their homeland. With troubled present and an uncertain future, for most of them life becomes a daily struggle. It becomes all the more challenging, if you are a refugee and a single mother. Farhat and Nasiha Nawabi both from Afghanistan, have gone through nightmarish struggle but they are determined to make their lives better. What ties these two power ladies together is their association with Ilham –  a catering group of Afghani women, which was established in 2015.

The word ‘ILHAM’ means positivity and the women chose this name because they feel that their life has been overshadowed by threats, negativity and cruelty. For them Ilham was a way to find a ray of hope and positivity in their lives! The group was founded by Aditi Sabbarwal from UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees) who works on sustainable livelihoods of refugees in Delhi. Initially the group was formed with four Afghan refugee women, and later on joined by three more women.

The idea of Ilham first came in Aditi’s mind, while working on a UNHCR project in 2015 with refugees who were single mothers. She wanted these women to have a livelihood, which gives them a sense of being at-home and they can easily relate it with their customs and traditions. Sharing the journey of Ilham, Aditi says, “The first experiment of their culinary skills was at Dastkar, New Delhi, in Sept 2015. The positive feedback received by the women at the fest gave them a boost and encouraged them to become a part of the catering group which gave them hope that they will be able to earn a livelihood in Delhi.” But why a group on food and catering? “Surprisingly food was not the first idea of Ilham, it was handcrafts and embroidery, inspired by Afghani culture. But we realize that starting with clothes will need huge investments, so shifted to food,” she shares.

Functioning form Bhogal, near Jangpura, Ilham serves many delicacies from Afghanistan, including Bolani, Ashak, Chapali Kebab, wrap, and Kabuli pulao, prepared with love and traditional flair by women like Farhat and Nasiha Nawabi, who are two of the three members working in Ilham currently.  Farhat is from Ghazni, Afghanistan and moved here in 2012 after she lost her husband in an explosion by Taliban. Her son was only one-year-old when her husband died.  For safety, she took asylum in India, and used to do household work to earn her living, before joining Ilham. “I used to leave my son locked in the room, while going for work, so he would not fall from the balcony or get kidnapped. Even though I was at work, my mind was always with my son worrying about him,” Farhat recalls. Life has become comfortable now, as she gets to stay at home to look after her son and earn a living at the same time. Cooking her homeland’s cuisine also gives her emotional comfort. Nasiha Nawabi, moved to Delhi in 2011 with her 8 children. She is from Parwan, Afghanistan, and came here after she lost her husband to heart disease due to a lack of medical facilities in Afghanistan. Initially, she tried to set up her own stall for serving Afghani homemade food, particularly Murgh Moshini and Chicken gravy. However, she faced stiff resistance from other residents of the area and her efforts remained futile. Ilham gave her new hope and she is now a master cook of Chapali Kebab.  In Ilham, she learned the basics of business and also learnt a little bit of Hindi.

However, initially, it was extremely challenging to convince women from Afgahnistan to join the group. “Initial two-years were very difficult for Ilham because many women had their own apprehensions; they considered India as a transit point and wanted to be settled in other developed countries. Many refugees don’t take up livelihood projects assuming that their chance of settling to a different country will be diminished. Another reason was no steady income from these livelihoods. I had to motivate them to understand the aspects of business, how it takes time for business to grow eventually,” Aditi adds.

Finally, dedication and joint efforts of these women bore results and within 3 months of its operations, Ilham had a profit of Rs. 25000. In 2018, the profit reached to 6 lakh. These power women of Ilham haven’t looked back after that despite many obstacles and have come a long way ever since. On March 22nd 2018, the ILHAM Afghan Cuisine was awarded as the ‘Best Women Food Entrepreneurs’ at the Delhi Street Food Awards organized by Delhi Food Walks in association with the American Centre. This year ILHAM was invited to O.P. Jindal University, Sonipat to put up a stall on the occasion of International Women’s Day. Ilham has also started its catering with US Embassy, followed by receiving many orders by reputed names like Taj Vivanta in Gurgaon. They’ve even catered in college festivals of Jamia Islamia and Miranda House and have reached out to hundreds of food lovers in festivals like Jashn-e-Rekhta and Jashn-e-Adab, with more than 2000 orders received.

Ilham has been an inspirational journey, made possible by the grit and determination of these wonder women from Afghanistan, to change their destiny forever.

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