Habib escapes the Taliban, using food as his tool to survive in the Afghan army; in Calais refugee camp and now to thrive in the Big Smoke

In 1984, Habib was born in Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city. At the time, the Soviet Union was heavily bombing the city. He and his family escaped to Iran carrying all their belongings on donkeys. Habib grew up in Iran until 1989, when the Soviet Union withdrew its troops and it was safe enough for his family to return to Herat.

Around two million Afghan civilians were killed during the 10 year Soviet-Afghan war. Habib’s family returned to a Herat that was unrecognisable: “There was nothing left, everything had been destroyed. Our home no longer existed. Everyday we would hear stories of children my age dying from landmine explosions. It wasn’t safe to walk around. Eventually charities came in and cleared the mines and then I was able to go to school”.

Habib in Herat

Two years after Habib returned to Afghanistan the Taliban arrived and chose his school as their local headquarters. Habib tells me “Because of my father’s wealth and social position in Herat, the Taliban started to target him. One day my father arrived home, and I heard my mother scream. She couldn’t recognise him because his face was so black, bloody and swollen and he couldn’t speak. He couldn’t really walk because they’d broken so many of his bones; the memory still torments me to this day. We all knew it wasn’t safe for him to stay. He packed a little bag and left that night. I was 15 years old. We didn’t have mobile phones and for weeks we didn’t hear from him. Finally his friend came to visit us and brought a letter from my father with some photos of him looking healthy – he was safe in Iran”.

“Soon after my father left, the Taliban knocked on our door looking for him. I remember them vividly: dressed in black with long beards down to their hips, their faces and heads covered with black turban material. They took away my older brother. When he returned, like my father, he was almost unrecognisable. As soon as he was well enough he went to join my father in Iran.

Eventually, the Taliban came for me. I was 16. They took me to their HQ and locked me in a cell. They kept asking where my father was. All I could say is that he was in Iran. Then I can’t remember what happened next, my brain blocked it out because it was too horrible. After 10 hours they released me. It wasn’t far from my house but it took me a very long time to get there. My mum said, “You need to leave.” And so, just like my father and brother months before, I fled.

After a few months 9/11 happened and American and British troops arrived to wage war against the Taliban. Habib joined the army to fight alongside his father and brother. By the age of 18 Habib was a Sergeant Major with 200 soldiers under his command. He fought with the Americans and later with the British and soon became a Commander. It was during his military missions that he learnt to cook. He got fed up of eating American ready-meals so he started to use fresh herbs and produce to cook for the soldiers and they loved it!

Years later, Habib was working for the Afghan intelligence services, living in his home town of Herat with his wife and two children. He was in regular contact with NATO and US intelligence services, making him a prime target for the Taliban. Habib could only leave his house in the dead of night when he would not be seen and he couldn’t tell anyone about his job, not even his family. He tells me “One weekend someone threw a stone over the back fence with a letter wrapped around it: “We know everything about you. We want you to work as a double agent for the Taliban. We will pay twice your current salary. If you refuse we will kill you”.

I asked Habib if he was tempted by the offer. He replied “Not at all. My whole life they had been the enemy, it was out of the question. I informed NATO and the Afghan army immediately. They said they could protect me but they couldn’t protect my family. That’s when I knew I had to leave Afghanistan and take my family to safety. For the third time in my life I fled my home.”

Habib with his son

“My idea was to go to Iran with my family and stay there, but the Iranian government were looking for Afghan refugees to take them to fight in Syria. So I left my family in Iran. I thought, since I’d supported the UK army in Afghanistan, maybe the UK government would offer me asylum. I spent one month in prison in France, then I spent four months living in the refugee camp in Calais. My cookery experience was really useful at this time. I used to cook for myself and other refugees in the Calais ‘jungle’.

I was advised that the only way to get to the UK was by lorry. From 7.15pm to 8.15am I wedged myself over the wheel under a lorry. It was probably the scariest moment of my life. I had to hold myself up with my arm muscles and there were many moments where I thought I couldn’t hold on anymore. But I did. 5th June 2016 I arrived to the UK. It took 3 years before I was awarded my refugee status on 4th October 2019. Now my wife and two boys (aged 9 and 5) can finally join me.

Whilst waiting for refugee status I wasn’t allowed to work and didn’t know what was going to happen. There was so much uncertainty. I felt the pressure to find a good life for my family. I felt depressed and when you’re depressed you just want to be somewhere quiet and dark; I knew I had to get out and join people instead”

Habib at his first Migrateful chef training session

“Then a friend told me about Migrateful. The social experience of teaching the cookery classes was a really great way to address my loneliness. The classes allowed me to meet British people, which I really valued as I am going to live in this country for the rest of my life. Migrateful has been like a family to me, it filled me with love, it was a place where I could belong and people made me feel valued and trusted. I had to leave behind my family so it was so important for me to find a new one. Running the classes has also helped me to develop the idea of starting my own Afghan food company: people really love my Afghan food!”

Habib has recently become a Migrateful trustee and is hoping to launch his Afghan food business is a few months time

Read more of our chef’s stories here

Try Habib’s Favourite Recipes

1. ASH-E RESHTEH

Persian ‘Multi-Vitamin’ Vegetable Soup

This delicious Afghan ‘multivitamin’ soup is used to stop people from getting ill during the country’s harsh winters. It is a complete meal in itself and is made extra special by the yoghurt-dried mint-sumac topping which is spooned on top at the end. Feel free to get creative with your yoghurt patterns!

Serves 12

Cooking time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

2 x 400g tins of ready-cooked chickpeas

2 x 400g tins of ready-cooked red kidney beans

100g lentils

4 tbsp olive oil

2 large white onions, grated

6 cloves of garlic, minced

2 tsp ground turmeric

100g carrots, grated

2 tbsp dried mint

2 chillies, finely chopped

1 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground cardamom

100g fresh parsley, chopped

100g fresh dill, chopped

200g fresh coriander, chopped

100g fresh mint, chopped

300g spring onions, chopped (green parts only)

1 tbsp tomato puree

Juice of 4 lemons

1 tbsp salt

300g Reshteh or broken vermicelli

25g tbsp Persian Sabzi Ash herbs (persian mix of dried herbs)

200g fresh spinach, chopped

Garnish

2 tbsp olive oil

3 tbsp dried mint

1kg greek yogurt, beaten to loosen

1 tbsp sumac

6 cloves garlic, minced

Method

  1. In your largest pot bring 4l water to the boil.
  2. Add all of the ingredients apart from the Reshteh/vermicelli, Sabizi Ash and spinach. Simmer for 30 minutes.
  3. Break the Reshteh in half, stir gradually into soup. Stir regularly to make sure that the pasta doesn’t stick and cook at a low boil until noodles and lentils are soft, c.10 minutes.
  4. Stir the Sabzi Ash herbs and 1/2 of the spinach into the soup until wilted, about 1 minute, then stir in the remaining spinach and simmer for a few minutes, stirring occasionally until thickened.

For the garnish:

  1. Whilst the soup is simmering, prepare the garnish.
  2. Heat a frying pan over a low heat. Add the olive oil and gently fry the dried mint until crisp but not browned.  Watch carefully as it is easy to burn.
  3. Combine the dried mint with the yoghurt, sumac and garlic.

Serve the soup with the yoghurt mixture spooned on top.

2. COOCOO KACHALOO

Vegetarian kebab

Ingredients

1kg potatoes, peeled

200g of white onions, peeled

4 large eggs

1 tbsp flour

½ teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

¼ teaspoon cumin

50g parsley

200ml oil to fry

Method

  1. Grate the potatoes and onions, combine and squeeze out the liquid.
  2. Peel the potatoes and grate them
  3. Beat the eggs in a large mixing bowl
  4. Add the grated potatoes, onions, turmeric, flour, salt, cumin and pepper. Mix together well and leave to stand for a few minutes
  5. Make small patties, flatten them in an oval or round shape.
  6. Heat 5-6 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Fry potato patties on both sides until golden brown
  7. Drain on kitchen paper and serve warm


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