Here’s How This Muslim Afghan Refugee Started A New Life In KL Through Food


Shasha Dania •  Apr 28, 2020

Shakira and her family arrived in Malaysia seven years ago as refugees from Afghanistan. She is one of some 180,000 refugees in Malaysia who have been forced to leave their countries because of war and human rights abuses. Like all refugees, it is unsafe for them to return. Malaysia has become a space of safety for Shakira and her family, but life is still a challenge for refugees in the country. Refugees have no legal status in the country as there are no laws that define what their rights are. They cannot work legally. Their children cannot go to regular school. Providing food and shelter for their families is a daily struggle. Many, like Shakira, gain an independent income through home-based work projects that enable them to provide for their family.

UNHCR and its partners work hard to help refugees keep their families safe and healthy. They work to help refugees gain access to life-saving medical assistance that they otherwise cannot afford, or to give refugee children a chance at education by helping refugee schools stay open. Working with partners, UNHCR also strengthens refugees’ ability to be self-reliant such as through courses and training to help them seek ways to earn an income and sustain themselves in the long-term.

Though Shakira’s story began with obstacles, she is now able to support her family and forge her own path to independence. And it begins with something that Malaysians and Afghans have in common - a love and passion for food! Read on to find out about her journey and how she’s adapted to life in Malaysia.

Credit: UNHCR

Shakira’s story started out like many others in the country. Refugees often arrive with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and depend on help and support provided by UNHCR to start their lives anew. For Shakira and her family (including 3 kids and her aged parents), their story began in Kuala Lumpur where they stayed in a hotel before eventually moving to Ampang.

Q: What was your family’s experience when you first arrived in Malaysia?

A: We stayed in a hotel at first. We were eating in restaurants, but my kids wanted to eat what they were used to. They couldn’t eat what was served in the restaurants here. The food was too oily and spicy for them. In Afghanistan, we boil the pasta, and then steam it with tomato sauce. Sometimes we use vegetables and beans, sometimes meat. My children love pasta. They could eat pasta every day, they never get tired of it.

Q: What is the significance of food in Afghan culture?

A: The Afghans like their stomachs, so we have many different dishes. Mantu (chicken dumplings) and Qhabeli Pilau are usually served during special occasions in Afghanistan. At home, we usually eat simpler dishes such as noodles in tomato broth, or Bolani (stuffed turnovers). I learnt to cook when I was nine, just like my mother did. Everyone knows how to cook in our community.

Credit: UNHCR

Ramadan is drawing closer, but for refugees such as Shakira, the holy month of Ramadan can hold mixed emotions. As Muslims around the world gather to fast and increase their acts of ibadah (worship), refugees who are still lacking in a proper home or job may face greater hardships in fulfilling their duties to Allah.

Q: Ramadan is coming soon. How does your family spend or celebrate the holy month?

A: We believe that during Ramadan, God’s rahmat (blessings) are offered to all human beings. We are all guests of Allah, and during Ramadan we believe we must do a lot of charity work. There should not be anger in the world, or hungry children. In Afghanistan, we collect money for needy people and give them food. During Ramadan, we also pray a lot. We do our prayers at the mosque, and after Sahur (pre-dawn meal) till the sun’s up.

Q: What are your family’s meals like during Ramadan, especially for your aged parents?

A: For sahur, I make rice and vegetarian stews. For iftar, we like Aash, a stew with noodles, beans and vegetables. It’s better to break fast with soft food as it’s easier to digest.

Credit: UNHCR

Shakira is a trained nurse and worked in a clinic at first. But after her father fell sick, she realized she needed to earn more money to cover his treatments. She began attending a business course run by UNHCR. She would bring in home-cooked food and get amazing responses from her classmates, who suggested she start taking orders. She was able to use the business skills she learnt during the UNHCR course to start a small catering business from home, and her mother also attended a UNHCR course that enabled her to start a grocery business in their apartment.

Q: How has attending the UNHCR business course changed your life?

A: I can earn an income and look after my children at home now. My mother also attended the UNHCR livelihoods course and set up a grocery shop in our house. The shop has cured my father of his depression as he can’t leave the house often. There are people coming and going to our home now. My father is happy he can help my mother.

Q: You didn’t intend to start a grocery business at first. Why did you do it in the end?

At first, we bought the ingredients for ourselves, for my catering project. But other Afghans here came and requested that we buy for them. So, we decided to use a room in the apartment as a shop. We only sell mostly to the Afghan community here.

Credit: UNHCR

Q: Has the grocery business had an impact on the Afghan community?

A: Many Afghan families here have problems because of food. It’s expensive to eat out and the children are also not used to the food outside. There is a family with three children I know. One of their children suddenly had paralysis on her legs because she didn’t have enough to eat. So, we tell the other Afghan families to come and take the food so that the children do not go hungry or are malnourished. They can take the groceries on credit. They pay in instalments when they can. What is important is that no family should go hungry.

Being able to turn her passion for food into a day job has transformed the lives of Shakira and her family, and in turn affected the Afghan community around them as well. Through attending courses organised by UNHCR, they have been able to stand on their own two feet while also giving back to others around them. Shakira can now support her family and provide them with shelter, food, and warmth without worry.

This Ramadan, you can help refugees like Shakira by supporting and donating to UNHCR. By donating to their programmes, your money goes directly to helping refugees learn valuable skills that enable them to forge new paths and new lives. Your individual donation means a world of difference to someone else – and it could be the first step to helping them rebuild their lives after losing everything.

This article is brought to you by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.