Shengjin city, Albania – The smell of freshly baked bread wafts from the kitchen of a small pizzeria in Shengjin city – a small coastal town in Albania. The bread, however, is not part of the usual offerings on the menu of Bella Vita Pizzeria, but in fact, a version of the Afghan naan, a quintessential traditional bread from Afghanistan that embodies much of the war-torn nation’s food culture.
The naan is only one of the five new dishes that are now being prepared in the kitchen of this Albanian pizzeria that has agreed to share its space with a makeshift Afghan restaurant started by two Afghan refugee women – Hasiba Atakpal, a renowned journalist, and Negina Khalil, the first female prosecutor in the remote province of Ghor in Afghanistan.
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“We have lobia (red bean curry), qabili pulaw (Afghan meat and rice delicacy), bolanis (stuffed fried bread), banjan borani (eggplant in tomato sauce),” said Khalil, who was a prominent member of Afghanistan’s legal fraternity, investigating cases of children recruited by Afghan armed groups such as Taliban, ISIL (ISIS) affiliates. “And just like in Afghanistan, every meal is served with the naan,” she added.
The familiar aromas of bread and spices invite the roughly 1,200 Afghan refugees in Shengjin to indulge in a nostalgia-evoking culinary experience, more than 5,500km (3,400 miles) away from the homes they left escaping persecution after Taliban seized the country in August last year. In all, nearly 3,000 Afghans have found refuge in Albania, most of them rescued by international aid agencies.
While it was Khalil’s work prosecuting armed groups and criminals that put her at extreme risk, Atakpal’s bold, front-line reporting as a correspondent for the TOLOnews – Afghanistan’s biggest news channel – earned her threats from Taliban fighters who disapproved of her work.
Both women were forced to leave Kabul, but continue to dedicate their energies to serving their Afghan compatriots.
Atakpal and Khalil’s restaurant, called Ghezaye Afghani (which means Afghan cuisines in Dari, one of the Afghan languages), does not have a business address – it exists within the local pizzeria that offered their space to the two enterprising women.
“We started this restaurant three months ago when we saw how much Afghans who escaped to Albania missed the food from home. Everyone here [at the refugee centre] is dealing with trauma, and we wanted to do something to bring smiles to their faces,” explained Atakpal.
The two women, who first met at the refugee processing centre in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, approached the local restaurant outside the Rafelo resort in Shengjin where they were being housed. All Afghans have been accommodated at designated refugee centres.
Thousands of Afghans were brought to Qatar after they were airlifted out of Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power in August, and as the US-led foreign troops prepared to exit the country after 20 years of war.
“We shared our problem with them; about how the Afghan community missed the local food. We explained the idea we had about starting an Afghan kitchen, and they readily gave us permission to use their restaurant space to cook and serve, at no cost,” Atakpal said.
With a place secured, the two women, who are now good friends, sought out finding produce to prepare affordable authentic meals, and at times had to substitute them with the closest available ingredients. “It is not that hard to find ingredients.
“But our focus has been to prepare food that isn’t expensive so the people can afford them because nearly all our customers are refugees here, like us,” Khalil added.
They also hired another Afghan woman to prepare the dishes, since both women had limited cooking experience. “Back home, I was always so busy, I hardly spent time in the kitchen. But now my family find it very interesting that now I spend at least three days a week in the kitchen,” Atakpal quipped.
The restaurant has also gained a significant following among the local residents in Shengjin – home to about 8,000 people.
“It is so joyful when Albanian people come to us asking for our qabili pulaw and lobia. I feel this space helps us build a relationship with the Albanians who have been so nice to Afghans and welcomed us with open arms,” Atakpal said, adding that she hoped their little restaurant-within-a-restaurant leaves a positive legacy of Afghans who passed through Albania in their time of crisis.
They have applied for asylum in the United States and Canada, but it could take as long as a year to be accepted.
For Afghans, the small space has become a conduit to another world, where they gather over familiar flavours to discuss the news from back home.
“We get customers, Afghans from all walks of life, from across tribes and provinces, sharing a common loss and sorrow. It helps bring the community together,” Atakpal said. “It has been such a positive space, that sometimes when the restaurant is close, people come seeking us to ask when we will open,” she added.
Despite its popularity, the four-month-old business has not yet made much profit. In fact, there are days when they barely meet costs. But the women insist that the idea of this venture was never to make profits, rather to help Afghans in exile cope with the trauma they face. “Our best profit is that our people come and enjoy their time here and have their food.
For instance, many Afghan kids are used to eating only Afghan food, and when they visit us, the happiness on their face while devouring one of our delicacies, is everything for me,” Atakpal said.
But, there is another group of Afghan children that Atakpal hopes to serve through the restaurant – a group of 45 young girls, who are child labourers, enrolled in a small private school that Atakpal founded last year, in Kabul.
“We had to shut the school when the Taliban took over, but restarted four months ago. However, we have been forced underground and all activities are now held discreetly,” Atakpal said, speaking passionately about wanting to keep the school afloat even as the future of girls’ education remains uncertain in Afghanistan. She has managed to partly fund the school with the extra income she earns by working as a freelance journalist and editor.
Despite international pressure, higher education and public universities for Afghan women have remained closed since the Taliban takeover last year. While the Taliban recently announced that schools and universities for Afghan girls would resume in March, many educationists remain sceptical.
Meanwhile, underground schools like Atakpal’s have cropped up across the country, operating despite pressure from local Taliban fighters.
“We have students from grade five to 10, and cover all subjects in that syllabus. All teachers are currently working as volunteers, and many are my university friends. However, there are expenses for schools supplies, and also we compensate the students for their time since they are losing working hours when they attend the school,” Atakpal explained.
“Currently, the restaurant doesn’t make any profits to help support the school, and I am working another job as a journalist to pay for the costs to fund the school,” she said, adding that she hoped she can expand her business to eventually support the school in Afghanistan.
Neither Atakpal nor Khalil knows what their future hold, as they wait for asylum confirmation.
“We lost everything, and are back to how things were 20 years ago, where women don’t have rights, access to education, there is no justice system, there hardly any Afghan journalists left, and people are miserable,” Atakpal said.
Khalil’s mother was assassinated by the Taliban in 2020, while she and her brother were attacked during a visit to her mum’s grave. Atakpal’s family members are still based in Kabul.
“But even now if things change, even a little bit, we will both go back in a heartbeat. If not, we will continue to work for Afghanistan no matter which part of the world we are in. We will continue our fight and hope to bring change,” Atakpal said.
Meanwhile, both women hope that their restaurant will continue even long after they are gone, kept alive by Afghans who might choose to stay.
“If nothing else, we will request the owner to continue to keep some of the Afghan delicacies on the menu, as a token to our shared experiences,” Atakpal said.