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Trial By Fire

Afghanistan, March 6, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Nasrin sits in her small bakery, taking a break after a busy day cooking bread and pastries to sell to her neighbors and at a local bazaar. Photo: Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Nasrin shares some freshly baked pastries with her neighbors. Photo: Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps

Stepping into Nasrin's small bakery in the outskirts of Kabul, you can't help but notice the black. It covers all four walls from floor to ceiling and is caked into the platter-sized hole in the floor that is the oven.

The rest of the black is embedded into Nasrin's hands, the result of years of braving the open flames in her oven to bake dozens of pieces of naan.

"You put the dough on this sheet," she says, showing off a flat piece of blackened metal. "Then you have to reach in and stretch it out before the dough cooks through."

The result is a foot-long piece of soft bread, quickly molded into a rough diamond shape that still bears the imprint of Nasrin's fingers - long lengthwise streaks from where she ran her hands across the dough to stretch it.

Cooking up to 100 pieces of bread using this method has given her hands a rough, leathery exterior. The heat has also helped to age the 45-year-old's face prematurely but she attributes her looks to other things.

"I know I look older than I should, but life has not been good to me and I'm looking older because of it," she says, absentmindedly picking at batch of vegetables in a stainless steel bowl.

Life is considerably easier for Nasrin and her four children these days. She has been able to grow her business by taking out a series of small loans from Ariana Financial Services, an institution founded by Mercy Corps in 2003.

These cash outlays have given her the opportunity to buy essentials like flour and wood as well as help repair the roof of her one room operation. Nasrin is currently paying back her fourth loan with Ariana, an almost $600 advance that she spent on a new oven for her bakery.

The money has helped Nasrin move into producing other baked goods, including bolani, a triangle-shaped pastry about the size of a hardcover book and filled with carrots, potatoes, onions and other root vegetables.

The business has grown considerably in the year since Nasrin took out her first loan with Ariana. A steady stream of neighbors stops in to buy bread and bolani directly from the source, and the rest are taken by her young sons to be sold in a local bazaar.

Nasrin is now able to make enough money to pay off her loans quickly and on time as well as take better care of her family's needs.

"We can buy better food now," she says. "And I was able to buy a cow for the house and pay for my son's wedding."

She has been so vocal about the impact this loan has had on her life that several of her family members, friends and neighbors are now clients of Ariana. She is even signing on to be a guarantor for many of these loans, as well.

Nasrin already has plans for a fifth loan, which she plans on using to install a second oven in her bakery so her daughter can help bake even more bread and pastries.

Untli then, she is happy to simply enjoy the relief that she and her family is feeling thanks to the added income.

"This has been a good change for my whole family. Everyone is more relaxed. Life is much better now."