There are no signs or signs to help find Kabul-Shengjin Cafe. The small Afghan restaurant is nestled at the southern end of a five-kilometer stretch of Shengjin Beach, in a small, quiet coastal town by the Adriatic Sea in Albania. Anyone watching just has to follow the aroma of fried dough and spices and listen to Bollywood music. This winter, when many of its neighbors were closed, the well-lit café was bursting with energy and life. A hand-scribbled whiteboard outside proudly declares its modest but highly sought-after delicacies: bolani (stuffed fried bread), dogh (salted yogurt drink) and samosas (stuffed fried pastries).
Even with a small menu, a lack of tourists and a growing chill in the air, this new cafe was packed with customers dining or waiting for their orders when I visited in December. Its success stems from the shared tragedy of a community fleeing persecution; the majority of Kabul-Shengjin cafe’s “regular” diners, like its owner, 22-year-old Walwala Jalalzay, are refugees who were evacuated from Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power in August last year.
“I didn’t even imagine that such a thing would happen to me, that I would lose my home, my country, separated from my family,” Jalalzay said. A recent psychology graduate and American Council employee, Jalalzay became a high-value Taliban target when the insurgent group took control of the Afghan capital in August. The Taliban have a history of suppressing women’s rights and restricting freedoms. Since the takeover, the group has beaten, tortured and imprisoned many Afghans, especially women like Jalalzay, who worked with Americans and other international allies.
With the help of her employers, Jalalzay was put on an early evacuation flight from Kabul, but as a young single woman she was not allowed to bring dependents. “They only counted spouses and children as dependents, not parents and siblings. I cried so much when I realized I had to leave my family,” she said. Jalalzay was brought to Albania, which hosts nearly 3,000 Afghan refugees, of whom around 1,200 are staying in Shengjin. “I still cry when I think about everything that happened. I miss my mother.”
Not wanting to sit and wallow, Jalalzay was determined to make the most of her opportunity. She volunteered part-time at the refugee center, providing literacy and English lessons as well as driving lessons to other refugees. But that wasn’t enough; she wanted to do more of her time. “One day I was walking along the beach and noticed these empty stores that were closed for the season. I was wondering if maybe I could rent the space and do something with it. I know a lot of us here are missing our Afghan food, and I thought it might be good to book the place for a few days and cook for the community here,” she said. .
The owner of the space, an Albanian who did not wish to be named, was reluctant when Jalalzay and his business partner, Maryam Aslami, first approached her. She warned them that the cold weather would keep customers away, but Jalalzay and Aslami’s plan to serve Afghan food to the displaced Afghan community moved her. In addition to giving them the space for free for four months, their benefactor also covered their utility bills. She told them that as someone from a country that experienced similar conflict and displacement in the 1990s, she could understand the suffering and loss of Afghans. Jalalzay recalls her saying, “Our story is the same and I can feel your pain. I admire your determination and I want to do something for you. So the cafe opened in November last year and has been a lifeline for Afghan refugees in the area ever since.
Kabul-Shengjin Cafe, named after the two cities Jalalzay called home, offers a glimpse into a life in Afghanistan that seems more distant than ever. It is decorated with the few things that the young refugee businesswomen were able to take with them in exile. An Afghan flag is prominently displayed on one of the walls overlooking the sea. At any given time, the cafe serves a mix of Afghans in search of culinary nostalgia, and a few Albanians or casual tourists who stumbled upon the cafe while exploring the beach.
Jalalzay deliberately reduced the menu choices. “We wanted to keep items that were easier to manufacture and also affordable in terms of investment and for customers, because we are all refugees and have very little purchasing power,” explains the young entrepreneur.
Bolani, a popular Afghan street food consisting of fried bread stuffed with things like potatoes and chives, is the star offering. The cafe also offers samosas and parathas, which require similar ingredients, and all of which can be served with the restaurant’s tangy tomato chutney. “And, of course, dogh, because no serving of bolani is complete without a glass of dogh,” says Jalalzay. The cafe also sometimes offers pure chai (milk tea), as the weather often calls for something warmer.
The kitchen is overseen by Aslami’s mother; she created the recipes and comes by a bit each day to make sure the kitchen is running smoothly. “We had to customize some of the recipes based on the ingredients available here and experiment with a few techniques to make sure the food was authentic to what you might get in Afghanistan,” she explained. When they couldn’t find gandana (chives) for the bolani, they swapped green onions. “But since scallions can be a little more pungent in taste, we steam them for a few minutes before using them to get rid of the harshness,” she explained.
Their customers don’t complain about any workarounds. The cafe regularly receives around 50 customers a day, with some even visiting twice a day. “It also depends on the meals that are served at the refugee centre. Sometimes when the food isn’t great, we get an increase in customers,” Jalalzay said. Although the restaurant is not making huge profits, Aslami and Jalalzay are able to cover the costs. “But it was never about the money for me,” Jalalzay said. “It was about being independent and doing something I can be proud of. I can see how happy Afghans are when they come for a bolani or a dogh. she says. “It gives me so much joy to see them happy.”
Alongside the construction of his restaurant, Jalalzay rebuilds his own life left in disarray by the crisis. While waiting for her asylum application in the United States to be processed, she has learned that she has business skills and may want to continue to do so when she arrives in the United States. “Managing this business also taught me a lot and the experience made me want to work on [a] companies, particularly in the food and catering sector. I really like doing this and I think I might have the caliber for it,” she said. “Maybe I can make the bolani business an international operation and also open a branch in the United States. If KFC can have branches all over the world, why not a bolani restaurant?”
The Kabul-Shengjin cafe also has another purpose: it responds to Jalalzay’s commitment to serving his people, even in exile. “In my country, girls are undermined, they are prevented from going to school, or from working. I want to show what Afghan girls are capable of.
Since taking power, the Taliban have prevented the reopening of girls’ high schools and universities for many months. Many Afghan women professionals from all sectors also lost their jobs when the Taliban imposed restrictions on women’s movements. “It took us years of hard work to get that education, to develop our skills…and they destroyed it all,” she said. “We lost Afghanistan, but Afghanistan also lost its precious talent; doctors, teachers, lawyers and even business owners were forced to flee the Taliban.
Jalalzay is inspired by Afghan women who continue to resist the Taliban. “This tragedy has also given me a new perspective on my people. I realize how attached Afghans are to our values, especially women. I have witnessed in recent months how Afghan women have overcome so much and remain so courageous in the face of tragedy,” she said, adding that Afghans have become adept at rebuilding themselves after tragedies. . “We have lost so much in these few months, that even if the Taliban leave today, it will be a lot to repair the damage they have inflicted,” she said. “But I would come back in a heartbeat to rebuild the country if they left.”
But for now, she has a business to run and an asylum claim to wait. Jalalzay built the cafe as a safe space for Afghan refugees, including herself, to heal from their grief. “So far from home and in the face of their trauma, the simple meal seems to ease their pain and make them smile.”
Photo: Louie Victa
Ruchi Kumar is a journalist who reports on the conflicts as well as the political and cultural histories of India and Aghanistan.