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Afghan refugee's 'Dream' coffee shop in Iran becomes reality

A Cafe of Dreams

A Cafe of Dreams

With each serving of French press coffee poured delicately into a cup with steamed milk, 21-year-old Afghan refugee Fatemeh Jafari lives out a dream in her basement coffee shop in Tehran that is out of reach for millions like her in Iran.

More than 3 million Afghans, including as many as 2 million who entered the country without legal permission, live in the Islamic Republic, according to United Nations estimates. Even those legally in Iran face challenges in finding work, with many taking jobs as laborers for cash under the table. Jafari hopes her 'Telma Cafe' (Dream Cafe) in Tehran will help bridge the divide between Afghans and Iranians and fight the xenophobia many Afghans face in Iran.

"Many think that Afghans are unable to speak Farsi with the Iranian accent or are illiterate," Jafari told The Associated Press on a recent day at the cafe.

"But when they come here, they see Afghan university students for themselves and get to know our culture and dialect better and it is very interesting for them. Here their false presumptions about us are transformed and Iranians and Afghans sometimes even make friends with each other." Jafari added, "We people are not as different from each other as some may imagine."

In pic - 21-year-old Afghan refugee Fatemeh Jafari poses for a photo at her basement Tehran coffee shop, in downtown Tehran, Iran. Jafari hopes her Telma, or "Dream Café" in Tehran will help bridge the divides and xenophobia Afghans can face in Iran.

Close-knit economy

Close-knit economy

Afghan refugees began arriving in Iran in 1978, following their country's communist military coup and the subsequent Soviet occupation. The occupation ended in 1989, giving way to years of civil war and ultimately a Taliban-controlled government. Then came the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion targeting al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, whom the Taliban harbored.

Since President Donald Trump's decision last year to unilaterally withdraw the U.S. from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers, some Afghans have begun returning home as Iran's economy suffers. But many still remain in the country, like the Iranian-born Jafari.

In pic - Hamed Azar, a 25-year-old Afghan refugee, makes coffee for customers at his basement Tehran coffee shop in downtown Tehran. Azar and his business partner, 21-year-old Afghan refugee Fatemeh Jafari, raised money from their parents, as well as used their own cash to open their Telma, or "Dream Café."

From trials to triumph

From trials to triumph

Jafari, an Azad University law student, worked with her friend Hamed Azar, another Afghan who studies engineering, to open the cafe in Tehran's bustling Ferdowsi neighborhood near the city's old downtown.

They worked hard to receive a permit from government authorities no easy task given that Labor Ministry's normal policy of not allowing Afghans to run cafes.

They raised money from their parents and used their own cash to open the business. They couldn't rely on a bank loan as Iranian banks do not give loans to foreigners, even those with Iranian residency permits.

They made their own tables and chairs, ran their own plumbing and picked up paint brushes to create the cafe. "We told ourselves, we will either succeed or fail, but let's try," Jafari said.

In pic - Two Afghan refugees spend time at an Afghan cafe in downtown Tehran, Iran.

Huge opportunity for cafe culture

Huge opportunity for cafe culture

At first, some customers thought Jafari and her colleagues were Chinese or Japanese because of their Asiatic features, which are common among Afghanistan's Hazara ethnic group. But Jafari attributed that simply to Iranians' limited exposure to Afghans living in the country.

The cafe's menu includes Afghan meals such as country's famous Bolani bread, a thin, quesadilla-like flat bread that is baked or fried and stuffed with potatoes, lentils and other vegetables. An Iranian barista has offered to help Jafari learn new techniques.

Cafe culture remains huge in Iran, with many cafes in university neighborhoods around Tehran where students and young people can be seen sitting and talking.

Things gotten better for Afghans in Iran

Things gotten better for Afghans in Iran

Jafari is lucky. One Afghan customer who declined to give his name because he was criticizing Iranian government policy toward Afghan immigrants, said he couldn't get a permit to open a barber shop.

"I passed the medical test and have gotten vaccinations but still I can't get the mandatory Health Ministry permit to open my shop," he said. The country has allowed Afghans to access health care and education. In October, Iran also ratified a bill granting citizenship to children of Iranian mothers and non-Iranian fathers.

That has allowed more than 100,000 children of Iranian women married to foreign nationals, mostly Afghans and Iraqis, to become Iranian citizens.

Iran, meanwhile, has suggested that it could allow its Afghan population to travel on to Europe while trying to pressure the European Union to do more to save the nuclear deal. Iranian officials have also suggested, however, that they want more Afghan immigrants to return home.


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Copyright © 2019 Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. All rights reserved. For reprint rights: Times Syndication Service