NEW DELHI: All the time she kept house in Herat, Anwara (name changed) did not know that one day she would long for the city and its salubrious climate. When Mariam ran, blinded with tears and blood, into a stranger's home in Kabul to escape the Taliban soldiers, she did not imagine that one day she would be walking the streets where no one cared if she even covered her hair.

Neither had the two women known that one day their paths would cross in the hot plains of faraway Delhi. But that is just what has happened. Anwara and Mariam are part of a group of remarkable Afghan women refugees in the national capital who have come together to set up Ilham, a catering startup that not only offers, and in the bargain, promotes delicious Afghan cuisine, but is a crucial income source for them.

“The change hasn’t been easy,” says Anwara, 38. Her present situation is very different from the quiet life she has left behind in Herat. Living in a happy home with her husband and four daughters, Anwara, who hasn’t studied beyond school, was content being a dedicated homemaker. The day her husband died in an explosion also marked the closure of a chapter in her own life. Her beloved city was no longer safe for a lone woman with daughters and so she decided to make her way to India.

Mariam’s memories, too, are frightening and painful. She can’t forget the day she was assaulted by the police on the streets of Kabul for not having covered her face – she had been ill and was on her way to visit the doctor, accompanied by her mother. Thereafter, when her husband disappeared after he was picked up by the Taliban she knew she had to leave with her four children. India was accessible and yet far from Afghanistan.

Of course, when she arrived here she realised she wasn’t alone. There was Parwana, a Shia Hazara from Ghazni, who had come with her son after her husband, a police officer, had died in an insurgency hit. And many others like them, who had lived through hell but were hoping to make a fresh start.

Notably, until the Syrian crisis, Afghanistan had spent three decades as the world's top producer of refugees. The situation there continues to be volatile making it impractical for most refugees to be repatriated. As many as 10,241 Afghanis have found an alternative home in India as registered refugees, while 3,451 are seeking asylum, as per the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Each of Ilham’s six members, from the youngest, Zahra, 19, to the oldest, Sakeena, 60, have telling stories of a lost homeland, ruptured familial bonds and shattered innocence to share. Moreover, they are all single women – widows and one divorcee – who know they have to make it work in a patriarchal society without a man in their life. There is yet another dimension that renders them extremely vulnerable: most of them belong to minority communities back home – Shias, Hazaras and Tajiks. So even in Delhi they are afraid of being identified because there are many Afghanis who come into the city on business or for conferences. This is why Ilham, which means “positivity” in Dari, is so apt for their venture – it’s a much-needed source of livelihood and doubles up as a safe space for them to heal their emotional and psychological scars even as they become unofficial culinary ambassadors of their nation.

"The women have been through so much personal upheaval that they needed this positivity," explains Aditi Sabbarwal of ACCESS, a non government organisation that partners with the UNHCR to provide livelihood skills to refugees. Sabbarwal conceptualised Ilham after interacting with the women and understanding their skills and aptitude.

Anwara, Zahra and Sakeena are the founding members of the group and they stay close by in a small neighbourhood in south Delhi. Their first test came during the annual culture and crafts festival Dastkar held in September 2015. "The women received an overwhelming response to the food that they had dished out for the visiting crowds and I came up with the idea of putting together a group enterprise that utilises their culinary skills to bring authentic Afghani cuisine to the food lovers in Delhi," elaborates Sabbarwal.

Indeed, the Kabli pulao, mantu and ashak, among the vast variety of aromatic dishes prepared by these women, can be hard to resist. Naturally, they have been gaining popularity ever since their initial outing. As orders increased, Mariam, Parwana, and Badria, 26, started the second Ilham branch in Lajpat Nagar, which has a sizeable Afghan community.

With the recognition and increased orders have come better earnings, a most welcome outcome for the otherwise struggling women. Ask Sakeena what she did with her very first earnings and she, at first, looks down at her lap, then slowly lifting her head states, matter-of-fact, “I did not make a loss, but neither did I make any profit. What I earned helped me cover the cost of the raw material and my transportation to the venue.”

But now the profits have increased, just about enough to pay the rent, or for a child's school fees - and they expect further increases. Of course, as the money steadily increases so does their self-esteem and sense of confidence in their abilities.

“At the outset they were nervous but they went forward as they were able to understand that this would give them income and exposure," says Sabbarwal, whose idea behind the initiative was to reach out to the most needy and also the single mothers.

Ilham has definitely made a difference. "Life has been hard here, not just money-wise but socially as well. I came to Delhi not knowing anyone. A relative who had once visited the city for treatment had told me to go to Lajpat Nagar where many Afghans live. In the beginning, it was common for people to make fun of us, jeer at us. We had a problem with the language, and no community or social life whatsoever," recalls Sakeena. The money she had brought was soon spent and she had to think of doing some work to support her family of eight children. Adept at embroidery back home she took it up once again. Sadly, though, it was not enough.

Those like Badriya refused to venture out of the house except if absolutely necessary because she was afraid she may be tracked. Even so, nowadays, she looks forward to the Ilham meetings as it gives her the chance to meet up with the others. After all, their group has provided the women with a sense of community, where they can interact with their own, share their daily lives, their hopes and aspirations, silly jokes and makeup!

Working in catering, of course, has been no cakewalk, especially since none have any prior experience in cooking for large numbers; some had to be taught to prepare the delicacies. They had to learn how to maintain quality, how to cater to the non-Afghani palate, and be stringent about not wasting food. From November last year they began receiving orders – a big one came from the U.S. Embassy and the women earned Rs 16,000, a large sum for them. More recently, they whipped up a grand meal for 250 staff members of the TAJ Vivanta in Gurgaon.

For the women every order counts. Even a day's break causes them nervousness. They need to be motivated and the best way is by placing an order – at least 24 hours in advance and for a minimum of four persons. What are you waiting for? Call Ilham at (0)9818944096 or email your order to

(Names of the women have been changed to protect their identity.)

( Women's Feature Service)