Islamabad  -  “Deafness is a cultural identity, merely not a matter of hearing loss”, reads a poster that is adorning the wall of a tiny but mighty eatery in Islamabad called “Abey Khao”. Sheikh Faizan Raza started off Abey Khao, along with his siblings Syed Jawad Raza and Ayesha Raza initially as a food cart but later turned it into a full-fledged business, which recently got featured by BBC. Besides Ayesha, the entire family suffers from different levels of hearing loss. The family is definitely differently-abled as they turned their disability into ability, and are now providing employment opportunities to other differently-abled people in the city, after being inspired by their father who runs a tailoring business in which he also employs tailors suffering from hearing loss. I sat down with the entire team to talk about their café, their experience as young entrepreneurs, and their hopes for better facilities to empower other differently-abled people in the society.

Food is synonymous with love, especially in a country like Pakistan, where the amount of love is measured by the amount of meat you put on your child’s plate. The staff at Abey Khao is doing exactly the same, spreading love with food, because love is the only language we truly need. Faizan was inspired by his sister’s cooking since childhood, “My sister and I used to try different recipes during our summer vacations, I mostly ate while she did all the cooking, but she took it as seriously as if she was on master chef. She is so good at it that I never doubted the fact whether people will like the food or not,” he said. Co-founder Ayesha Raza who is a bio-scientist by profession is the chef behind the scrumptious food available at the café. I was shocked to find out that the price of every item is exceptionally cheap, as a food blogger myself, I would highly suggest everyone to try out their take on Samosas called Sambosas which are available in two flavors, Chicken Cheese Sambosa and Mac ‘n Sausage Sambosa for only Rs.15 and Rs.30 per piece. Moreover, their best selling items are the gooey brownies which are freshly baked by their mother every day. Ayesha says that her personal favorite item is the Chicken burger as she worked on it for four months just to master its recipe and she would highly recommend all the foodies to try it out atleast once.

Abey Khao promises a whole different experience once you enter their premises, they let you immerse in their culture like never before, an entire wall is beautifully decorated with a sign language chart labeled with signs and alphabets, the menu itself is labeled with signs alongside every item, and yes, you need to place the order in sign language with the help of the chart or simply point towards the item you want, because the owners believe that if they can learn our language despite their disability, we should also learn or at least try to experience their language, so we could understand them better and hence create a more harmonious and inclusive society. The person taking orders on the counter exclaims, “I feel really happy when a customer actually makes an effort to communicate with me in sign language, I just want others to embrace me and my disability instead of making fun of it.”

According to the Pakistan board of statistics, there are 3,286,630 deaf/mute people in Pakistan out of which only 28230 are enrolled in school. The biggest challenge that they face is low-quality education due to which they are unable to read or write properly, despite going to school. Moreover, disabled people living in rural areas have no access to special education at all so they live highly dependent lives and even suffer at the hands of illiterate quacks that allege to fix disabilities. There are countless higher educational opportunities for deaf and hard of hearing people in foreign countries but most of the potential students are unable to obtain admission because the English language tests are too difficult. Most of the special schools are run by NGOs and corporate organizations. Lack of government funding is a big hurdle in this community’s betterment, due to which only wealthy families can afford cochlear implant surgeries for their children and the rest just have to rely on sign language or whatever mode of communication possible. Furthermore, lack of official sign language interpreters causes a lot of inconveniences when going to a hospital, government office, police station or court.

Co-owner of Abey Khao and President of Pakistan Youth Federation for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Syed Jawad Raza tells me that the siblings took this initiative to empower the deaf and hard of hearing community due to lack of opportunities for them and to set an example for other businesses and to encourage them to hire differently-abled employees. I asked him about his expectations from the new government to which he said, “I hope they give us equal rights in all the fields, work for our welfare and keep lack opportunities and our problems in mind while making any new laws and policies regarding the deaf/hard of hearing community. We are equal citizens and hope to be treated equally.”

As a young entrepreneur Faizan faced many challenges, he was doubted for being too young and immature to run a business on his own, at school he was bullied for not speaking fluently because of his hearing problem and was criticised for quitting school and starting a business instead, but he has shut down all his haters by standing firmly despite all odds. Today, the same people proudly boast about him and his successful business. He tells me, “Food is a great source of communication and the most honest expression of love, it brings people together and this is how we are breaking barriers at Abey Khao.”

Theirs is a story of resilience, hope, and hard work, but most of all, it’s a story that inspires countless people including myself, despite being differently-abled and after facing so many adversities because of something that was never in their control in the first place, they are still grateful for everything that they have. Their determination and ambition are truly infectious. If you’re in Islamabad do visit their café in I-8/1 or their food cart in F-6/2, the food, and the enriching experience will surely make your day. Let’s support each other and make our world a more tolerant, accepting and inclusive place for everyone regardless of their gender, race, religion, sexuality, and ability.





maha shafqat khan