In war-scarred Iraqi city, food business gives women independence


Abir Jassem is busy preparing stuffed vegetables at a kitchen in Iraq's Mosul, where after years of unrest a women-run catering service has helped single mothers like her achieve financial security.

The 37-year-old, who lost her husband while the city was under the control of the Islamic State (IS) group, said she had to get a job to put food on the table for her and her children.

"If I didn't work, we wouldn't have anything to eat," said Jassem.

She is now one of some 30 employees of "Taste of Mosul", which celebrates local delicacies and was founded in 2017 after the northern Iraqi metropolis was liberated from IS jihadists.

Most of the workers -- cooks as well as two deliverywomen -- are widowed or divorced.

Mosul residents are all reeling from the brutal IS rule and the war to defeat it, but for women in Iraq's largely conservative and patriarchal society, the challenges are often compounded.

For Jassem, whose husband died of hepatitis, the catering business has offered a lifeline.

Her family had refused for her to work in any mixed-gender spaces, "but I wanted to work so I would not have to depend on anybody", she said.

Now she earns 15,000 dinars ($11) a day cooking meals that are then delivered to clients.

Her speciality is Mosul-style kibbeh, a minced meat dish.

"Neither Syrians nor Lebanese can make" some of the recipes her Iraqi city is known for, Jassem boasted, as other women sat beside her at a large blue table were preparing the day's menu.

One cook rolled vine leaves. Another copiously stuffed hollowed-out peppers with orange-coloured rice, and a third made meat fritters.

- 'Strong women' -

Only slightly more than 10 percent of Iraq's 13 million women of working age are in the job market, according to a July 2022 report issued by the International Labour Organization.

When the war in Mosul ended in the summer of 2017, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR estimated the number of "war widows" in the thousands.

"Their husbands were often the families' sole breadwinners," the UN agency said.

"Without an income and often with children to support, Mosul's war widows are among the most vulnerable to have been displaced during months of fighting for the once thriving city."

Mahiya Youssef, 58, started "Taste of Mosul" to allow women to enter the labour market in the battered city.

"We have to be realistic," she said. "If even people with university degrees are unemployed, I wondered what kind of work" would "let them cover their children's needs and be strong women".

Launched with just two cooks, the initiative has since grown and now also provides employment for young graduates, said Youssef, a married mother of five.

Appetisers and main dishes on the menu go for the equivalent of $1-10, and monthly profits top $3,000, according to Youssef, who plans to expand.

She said she hopes to open a restaurant or create similar projects in other parts of Iraq.

- 'Unique' -

Youssef said her passion was "old recipes that restaurants don't make", like hindiya, a spicy zucchini stew with kibbeh, or ouroug, fried balls of flour, meat and vegetables.

One of her employees, Makarem Abdel Rahman, lost her husband in 2004 when he was kidnapped by Al-Qaeda militants.

The mother of two, now in her 50s, delivers food in her car, which she said has drawn some criticism.

"My children support me, but certain relatives are opposed" to her working, she said.

But Abdel Rahman hasn't let that stop her, and said she has found in "Taste of Mosul" a "second home".

Many clients order again, but some have become particularly loyal.

For more than two years, Taha Ghanem has ordered his lunch from "Taste of Mosul" two or three times a week.

"Because of our work, we are far from home," said the 28-year-old cafe owner.

"Sometimes we miss our home cooking, but we have this service", he said, hailing "the unique flavours" of Mosul's cuisine.



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