For the past few months, there’s been no good news emanating from Syria in the threshold of the dreaded ISIS. There has been nothing to talk about, but war and death. Yet, there is always hope to be found, in the great ability of the human spirit to endure hardship.
It fell upon courageous Syrian women to find hope and dignity through entrepreneurship - in the midst of war and disaster - women who have had to shoulder the burdens of taking care of families fleeing their country and who have had to discover it in entrepreneurship.
A group of Syrian women, among whom there were women who had been engaged in professional work before the civil war came, came together to create a women’s cooperative– more of a fellowship where women could gather together and do something to empower themselves and their families. Some of the women in the group hailed from Jobar, renowned for a delicate crochet since medieval times. They also knew that the luxurious, handmade soap from Aleppo is treasured all over the world for its unique healing properties but the war and ISIS active in Aleppo had put a stop to that.
It was dangerous work – but there were people willing to make the trip from Damascus to Aleppo. One courier was shot and killed by a sniper along the road but they were able to keep things going. The women had to keep the families fed, themselves occupied. Even in the face of death, they had to persevere.
Against all obstacles – power outages and tough work conditions meant the women had to work around the clock - they were a committed lot. With a fine product on their hands, they sought markets outside Syria – the Syrian currency was out of favour – and found a female journalist who took up their cause on Facebook. A Facebook page was set up and the orders kept coming in. And international buyers became interested.
The product found favour also because the women were committed to making an excellent product, just the way it has been made for years. The product is beautifully packed by hand and presented in dainty sachets.
The handmade soap drew the attention of the Karam Foundation, co-founded by a Syrian-American architect and writer Lina Sergie Attar. She studied architecture at the University of Aleppo and moved to RISD and MIT. Co-founder of Karam’s Innovative Education initiatives, she also founded Zeitouna, a creative therapy programme for displaced Syrian children and the Karam Leadership Programme, an entrepreneurship and technology programme for displaced Syrian youth.
The Chicago-based Karam Foundation became the North American distributor for the soap while Aramex ships the soaps for free. For the women producing the soap and experiencing true entrepreneurship, it has been a learning curve, one that has empowered them in more ways than one, says Jehan, who acts as their leader.
A wedding photographer before the war, Jehan says she had to learn to balance inventory with orders and manage the side of running a business that was growing. The cooperative was working well and the women were benefitting; keeping families fed since most men were not able to find work as refugees. Last year, the Karam Foundation sold around 4,500 items successfully through their website.
Jehan stays in touch with the women via WhatsApp and is planning to open a women’s cooperative in Turkey to make lavender sachets. Syria and Turkey share the same scents of amber and musk, which evoke powerful memories of home for all of them.
It is work that keeps Jehan and 50 other women engaged and fed but it is also an emotional experience for them. The women come together in Jehan’s home and there’s a lot of laughter and camaraderie but there are also tears – they have lost their homes and their livelihoods but even in war, there is hope for these courageous women. Each women is able to earn about US $ 150 a month, which means a significant income for each of them.
Just like women everywhere, these women too want the best for their families. There are other women too, outside the women’s cooperative, running self-employment initiatives that keep their families fed. One of them is Badria, who is running a thriving business of selling meat-stuffed pastries, a Syrian delicacy, to her neighbourhood. There are other women, those who have chosen not to languish in the poverty of being a refugee but engage in a business that brings an income, however small.
Wars come and go – in the process, families are wrecked, homes lost and children affected. Lives are torn apart and tears flow. But there is always a road for hope to come back – and often, that road is made by courageous women who understand quietly but firmly that men may fight the wars but women need to find ways to keep the families fed through it all.
(Nayomini Weerasooriya, a senior journalist, writer and a PR professional, can be contacted at [email protected])