A feast for the eyes

“I was married at 14 years, nobody taught me how to cook - I had to teach myself.” Aida talks about the barriers to success in Jordan.

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Written by Emma Langbridge

As we pull up outside the community centre there is no evidence of the industry going on inside.  We walk down into this tucked-away building and pass a few busy looking people in the entrance.  As we enter a small kitchen space we find five women expectantly waiting for us. 

Aida, aged 50, assumes the leadership role and steps forward to welcome us.  Aida and her four business partners have recently received training and financial support from CARE to set up this production kitchen.  There’s an excited buzz as the women explain they have their first bazaar coming up which they are busy preparing for.   It seems they are extremely well prepared – they hurriedly start producing dish after dish of incredible food for us to sample, ranging from stuffed vine leaves to tabbouleh to sweet delights.  Within moments the table is bursting with a banquet and there is no question that we should try everything on the menu. This is typical Jordanian hospitality and we are relieved we only had a light breakfast!

I start by asking Aida how she learnt to cook, she explains: “I was married at 14 years, nobody taught me how to cook, I had to teach myself.  I experimented at home with recipes from my neighbours, it was all self-taught.  My mother didn’t teach me anything.” The others all chime in to say that they, too, are self-taught and 39 year old Haneen adds: “Life is the biggest school.” Aida goes on to explain that her first husband was always sick so she ended up supporting him and their three children.  She was widowed twenty years ago and then remarried and had a further two children, now aged 18 and 19.  “I became the breadwinner for five children.”  When I ask about the challenges she has faced she starts to cry and explains:  “There have been times when I have experienced extreme poverty.”

It is clear that Aida has faced many challenges over the years, but she is determined to help other women who have faced similar difficulties. She explains that she has taught other women at the community centre to cook, many of whom are refugees – a rapidly growing population in Jordan. Aida knows all too well the traditional barriers that women in Jordan face: “Our families would not have let us set up our business if it were outside the community centre.  They know that this is a safe environment for women.”

Aida

Aida serving vine leaves.  Photo: CARE Nederland

Ala’a aged 31 joins in the discussion and agrees that her husband, who works abroad in Dubai, would not have allowed her to work at the production kitchen if it hadn’t been in the community centre.   She adds: “I am very excited about our business.  We have a rotation system but I often come when it’s not my turn.” The others reveal that Ala’a is pregnant with her second child and she stands up to proudly show off her bump.  I ask what she will do when the baby is born: “I will take the first few weeks off work and then I will bring the baby to work with me.”  The others all jump in and say that they will also take care of the baby at the kitchen.  The camaraderie and teamwork is very clear.  These women are in this together.  In between talking, the women start piling food onto our plates and nodding for us to eat up.

Aida goes on to explain the financial challenges involved in setting up a business: “Women in Jordan have no financial resources to start a business.  If CARE had not given us a grant we would never have been able to set up this kitchen.  When they told me they were giving us a grant I wasn’t sure if they were serious.  I couldn’t believe it!  With this loan we’ve been able to buy so much – a cooker, fridge, Arabic oven and so many other materials.  This grant has helped us to stand on our own feet.” When I ask her whether she has ever applied for a loan she quickly shakes her head: “I have never tried to get a loan, I would be very afraid of having that commitment to repay.  I was once approached and offered a loan by a financial institution but I refused it as they have a bad reputation of sending women to jail who default on their loans.”  Ala’a adds: “Women in Jordan don’t dare to think of applying for a loan.”

tabbouleh

Tabbouleh from Aida's kitchen ‘Sit Al-Kul’. Photo: CARE Nederland 

As our conversation comes to a close I ask about their future plans.  Aida explains: “We want to grow our business bigger so that we have enough income to expand into a bigger kitchen.” And with that she turns to us and insists that we eat every last mouthful.  We obediently eat up and then stagger out the door with our bellies full of delicious food and inspired by these incredible women who have overcome so much. 

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