French bakery offers future to Afghan minority children

by AFP/Lynne O'Donnell, Jan 7, 2010 | Destinations: Afghanistan / Kabul

KABUL - On the wall of Le Pelican cafe in Kabul's dusty suburbs are photographs showing a baker's dozen of Afghan children beaming over a tray of pastries fresh out of the huge industrial oven behind them.

Nearby shelves are stacked with their wares -- croissants, pains au chocolat, baguettes, apple and peach tarts and turnovers, sugar cookies, a variety of breads -- which teenagers Habib and Zahir carefully put in paper bags for enthusiastic customers.

In a city that has little trace of the sophistication of its past, Le Pelican Boulanger is more than just a welcome oasis for an expatriate community living and working as if under seige.

The cafe is an outlet for what its French owners, Jacques and Ariane Hiriart, have built from scratch to educate children from Afghanistan's ethnic Hazara community, who have long suffered discrimination and exclusion.

At the Hiriart's vocational centre in Kabul's southeastern suburbs, almost 200 Hazaras -- not all of them children -- learn to read and write before they take on the task of turning out fine French pastries and breads.

The aim is to give them skills they can use to find jobs in the hospitality industry, said Jacques, though he concedes the day Afghanistan welcomes tourists from across the world is probably a long way off.

Many of the children at Le Pelican child care centre "just knock on the door," said Ariane, or she hears about them by word of mouth and invites them to come and learn.

While most are children, Hazara women also come to learn to read and write, she said, adding the youngest at the centre is six and the oldest 32 years old.

On the vocational side, however, it is still early days for the Hazara boys learning to make bread and hoping the skills will help them find future work.

"Everyone is still very young, and there are not so many hotels here so it is difficult for them to find good work," Jacques told AFP, sitting over a hot chocolate in a sunny alcove of Le Pelican as one of three cats dozed on the next chair.

Jacques, 61, and Ariane have a long association with Afghanistan, having first worked in Kabul for a Swiss non-governmental organisation in 2000, while the brutal and extremist Taliban was still in control.

Under the Sunni Taliban regime the discrimination long suffered by the Shia Hazara -- believed to be descendants of the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan and his sons who swept across Central Asia in the 13th century -- had become even worse. The few NGOs in the country were not permitted to work with them.

After the 9/11 Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States, the couple were on the last evacuation flight to leave Kabul two days later.

Within a month, the Taliban had been pushed from power in a US-led invasion, and not long afterwards the Hiriarts returned to Kabul "to do what we really wanted to do -- to take care of what we considered the most vulnerable people, Hazara children," Ariane said.

Years earlier, after the death of their only child at age 10, the couple had decided to change their lives, she said.

In 1986, Jacques ended his 12-year career as an oil rig engineer to retrain as a baker, learning l'art de la patisserie with a vague plan of moving abroad and starting a new life.

After running a successful boulangerie in eastern France for 10 years, they were inspired by French writer Joseph Kessel's book "On the Horsemen's Steps," about the traditional Central Asian mounted game of buzkashi.

"This was our inspiration, as it was for many French people, to come to Afghanistan," said Jacques. "So we joined an NGO but it was not satisfying -- what was missing was contact with the population.

"I'm not really interested in doing the sort of work that means you sit behind your computer and never see what is happening outside, that is very sad. Most important for us is the contact with the local people."

As their plans took shape, they found help in odd corners -- for instance, the bread oven at their centre was brought into Afghanistan by the French military, fighting with the US and NATO to quell a Taliban insurgency.

"We had our first customer on September 12, 2006, the day of my birthday," he said, searching for the bill on his laptop. "We sold croissants, pains au chocolat and hamburger buns."

Annual operating costs are 120,000 dollars, said Jacques, adding that the cafe and sales of the bakery products had made 12,000 dollars since April 2009.

They rely on private donations and keep a low profile, not wishing to draw attention in a country ranked by the international watchdog Transparency International as the world's second most corrupt, after Somalia.

Unlike many foreigners with businesses in Afghanistan, the Hiriarts refuse to pay bribes to stay open, believing they are setting an example to their trainees.

For now, however, they believe they have reached a plateau and that to take their concept further they need help -- preferably from another couple who will be able to run the cafe and bakery while they develop the centre.

"We are searching, but it is not easy. Not many people like us want to come to Afghanistan," said Jacques.

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