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.
“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.
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