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Cooking up a living

Single mothers from Afghanistan are striving hard to make a living in Delhi with a catering startup. But with orders falling short, they find themselves engaged in a grim battle against poverty

Khatera began working in a hotel when she came to Delhi but lost the job when the hotel closed down. She then took up embroidery to earn a livelihood. Now, she works with Ilham, a catering startup for single Afghan refugee women.

She fled war-torn Afghanistan and came to Delhi in 2013 with her brother and daughter. As a single mother of a 6-year-old, life has not been easy — Khatera left her husband because he was an alcoholic. She says that her financial condition has improved since she joined Ilham but she barely manages to make ends meet. “Before Ilham, my life was miserable. It is better now but still not enough to make survival easy,” she says.

“We are facing problems in India too, but they are different from the ones we experienced in Afghanistan. Here, paying the rent amid financial insecurities is a problem. But it is still better in India. And since we have no other option and no better alternative when our own country has been ravaged by war, we are trying to make the best out of our lives here,” she adds despairingly.

Ilham, which means ‘positive’ in Dari language, was started in 2015 by Delhi-based NGO ACCESS and United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). Aditi Sabbarwal, senior livelihoods assistant at UNHCR, came up with the idea. But what started with seven Afghan women on board is now reduced to just three women who operate from a tiny kitchen in a cramped one-bedroom house in Bhogal (south Delhi).


Ilham’s journey began with a food stall set up at the Dastkar fair. Their biggest feat has been catering for Taj Vivanta, Gurugram, for their staff members. They have also catered for the US Embassy and Urdu festival Jashn-e-Rekhta. Cooking is what comes naturally to them and with a culinary training programme that was arranged for the team, along with the constant guidance of Sabbarwal, they managed to pick up the skills of business management and teamwork.

Afghan women are also good at embroidery but Sabbarwal chose food because according to her, it involves less risk. Food not only acts as an empowering agent for these women but also keeps the memories of their country alive. Even though they do not get the same kind of ingredients here, they try to make the dishes as authentic as possible, adapting to the local produce and tastes.

Khatera, who joined Ilham in 2016, says, “Ilham has changed my life for the better but it is still not enough. It keeps us occupied so we think less about the hardships that we have suffered. Obviously, it cannot make all our problems vanish. Also, nowadays, we are not getting much work. In fact, we hardly have any work during summers.” They got their last two orders for Bakr-Id — one at Green Park and another at Vasant Vihar.

Nasima, another Afghan refugee who has been with Ilham since its foundation, also complains that they do not get many catering orders during summers. When Nasima came to Delhi in 2011, with her five children, her youngest daughter was just six months old. She has three daughters and a son who is the eldest and works as a cleaner in a hotel now. “Ilham has made our lives better but our problems our endless — paying rent and fending for our children being the most difficult. But Ilham has made me feel that I am not useless — that I can do something,” she says.

“My husband died nine years ago during the war in Afghanistan. I sold off everything and came here in search of a new beginning. Before Ilham, I used to do embroidery. Then I started washing and ironing clothes. To meet the rising expenditure, I also had to work as at cleaner in a guest house. I still try to do stitching to supplement my income when we don’t have much work here. Those who come from Afghanistan and are a little better off, pay me Rs 1,000-2,000 to clean their houses. I don’t stay well these days but I have to work in order to provide for my children,” she says.

Khatera says, as she struggles with her broken Hindi to find the right words, “Language is also a huge challenge that we face in our day-to-day lives. During my first year in India, I could not understand Hindi. Eventually, I did manage to learn a little but I am still not able to communicate properly with the people here.” Nasima seconds her when she says that language is a big problem for them.

Nasima says that she loves catering for Jashn-e-Rekhta. “People here love our chapali kebab and khajoor (a sweet delicacy which is in the shape of a doughnut). What Indians call khajoor, we call khurma and Khajoor is a sweet dish,” she explains as her face lights up with glee. Apart from the traditional cuisine, she also loves making chocolate cake and corn cake. Manthu, Kabuli pulao, nargisi kebab, mutton kofta, mutton do piyaza, phirni and baklava are among Ilham’s popular dishes.

Another Afghan woman who is one of three remaining members of Ilham, Farhaat, came to Delhi seven years back. She gets teary eyed while talking about the situation in Afghanistan and how she survived the war. “I miss Afghanistan but considering the present scenario, I do not want to go back. Even if the situation ever gets back to normal, the people there will not accept me. They will consider me an unchaste woman as I stay alone in a foreign land with my son,” she says, adding, “What aggravates our misery is that we have no work these days.”

Her son’s name brings a smile to her face. She explains how naughty her 8-year-old son Zia is, as she scrolls through his videos on her phone. Showing her Unani medicines, Farhaat further talks about how her ill-health scares her. “Who will take care of my child if something happens to me?”

Remembering her husband, she bursts into tears. “My husband’s death is the biggest sorrow of my life — something that is going to hurt me forever.” On being asked what is different about her experiences in India and Afghanistan, she says, “There I used to live in the fear of bombardments. Here when my son goes to school, I don’t worry about that.”

Like any other mother, she wants Zia to study well and lead a happy life. “Zia says that he wants to become the Prime Minister. I wonder what will happen to the country if that ever happens,” she says jokingly, as thinking of her child again manages to make her happy.

The last few months have been extremely strenuous for them. Khatera, Nasima and Farhaat say that they were just able to scrape a living. “My children go to school. I have to buy clothes and books for them. Looking after five children is an uphill task with survival becoming so difficult these days,” laments Nasima.

Even though Ilham has instilled a new hope for the future, the agony of these Afghan women is far from being assuaged. With language a constant hurdle, they are working hard to survive in a foreign land with limited opportunities.