Syrian Women Are Selling Aleppo’s Famous Soap In The Middle Of An Economic War
BY: ELIZABETH MACBRIDE
For a little while, before people had hardened to stories of Syrian refugees, Jihan and the Ghar Collective were making $3,000 a month, selling soap. It was enough to help support 50 families in Damascus.
“We wanted not to accept aid,” Jihan tells me through a translator in a Turkish city a couple of hours from Istanbul, where I visited her over Thanksgiving.
But sales have fallen now. The women of Ghar are lucky to see $300 a month, Jihan tells me.
“I want to work more and more,” she says, sitting on a couch in the nondescript apartment on a side street. “I hope you can carry our voice back to America.”
Jihan is a Syrian refugee who fled Damascus in 2015, after being arrested by the Assad regime. From Istanbul, working with women back in Damascus, she built the Ghar Collective, which exports beautifully embroidered bags and other handcrafts from Damascus to Istanbul, where she packages soap made in the Aleppo tradition. That soap is famous worldwide for its skin benefits.
Much of the world has turned its attention from the Syrian war, and Turkey is not a particularly easy place for a Syrian refugee woman to build a business. But Jihan is one of those people who can’t give up. The women back in Damascus are facing, as Bloomberg reported earlier this year, an economic war. She’s their conduit to the outside world. She told me the women of the collective back in Damascus are struggling to buy food as prices rise.
“We wanted to put a little of ourselves in those,” she says, showing me the delicate embroidery she and the women have done, including cloth gift bags decorated with Christmas trees made up of scissors and sewing supplies. In an apartment in Turkey, miles from the home and life she had back in Syria, she shows me the varieties of soap — honey, lavender and juniper, among others. “The scents of Syria,” she says.
The War and World Go On
Back in 2015, when I first wrote about Ghar, Jihan’s efforts to build a business in the middle of the war moved tens of thousands of people. A group of women were meeting in one of their homes in Damascus, talking, singing as they embroidered and crocheted bags to hold rich Aleppo soap they bought from a factory near that famous city. The war was worsening. They had built professional careers in modern Syria before the war – Jihan was a wedding photographer – but now, it was the old skills, passed down from their mothers, that allowed hope for the future.
Jihan hired a driver to take their packaged soap to Istanbul, where she caught the eye of journalist Hala Droubie. Then, she’d found an American sales outlet for the ladies’ work: Karam Foundation. Christopher Schroeder, co-founder of a global venture capital fund, Next Billion Ventures is a supporter of Karam. He asked Aramex founder Fadi Ghandour to provide free shipping.
My Forbes editor boosted the story, Women To Women International promoted it, and Karam sold out of the soap for two years running.
The Continuing Story
About 400,000 people died in the first five years of the Civil War, which began in 2011, according to CNN. It has continued on, involving pro-democracy forces, Islamic terrorists , the Kurds, and inflamed by foreign powers including the US and Turkey.
Russia is in the ascendance in Syria. Stories of Assad’s brutality are emerging – but they have become too familiar to Americans. And, though America is statistically a charitable nation, we are giving less in general. In the wake of tax reform that removed the deduction for charitable giving, donations fell 1.7% between 2017 and 2018, according to Charity Navigator. The picture is likely worse for Syrian causes. Karam Foundation saw its donations fall to $3.1 million in 2017 from $3.5 million in 2017, says founder Lina Sergie Attar, though it still funds two Karam Houses in Turkey to help young people cope with trauma and learn job skills (I visited one). It also still sells the soap, though it has discounted the prices 15%.
“We have seen donations drop over the past few years as many people were hearing about the Syrian crisis in the news and donating as a response,” she says. “However, we also have an increased number of committed donors who generously give monthly or yearly. These donors understand that their contribution is an investment in building future leaders. Our work is not solving a short-term disaster. It’s rebuilding a complete society that has lost everything but their will to survive, succeed, and belong.”
I was in Istanbul to cover the startup community in this most cosmopolitan place. The city surrounded by a “garland of waters,” straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus. But on Saturday, I made my way to visit Jihan with the help of the assistant manager at the Hotel Corrine. He took the day off to drive me for a nominal payment. “The Syrians are like our brothers,” Farouk told me. It was a sentiment quietly echoed by many Turkish and Syrian people I met.
In this region of the world – and increasingly all over the world — people seem to move from one brand of autocracy and surveillance to another. Jihan told me in 2015 how, in Assad’s Syria, she’d been arrested and held by authorities until her family could pay to get her out. It was a common story at the time, as reported by Human Rights Watch. Tens of thousands of people disappeared in the regime’s prisons.
People in Turkey are afraid to speak freely – Erdogan has jailed civil rights leaders, journalists, academics and military leaders – anyone who might be a threat. His regime even kicked one of the world’s most important nonprofits, Mercy Corp.
Turkey is hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees, and some Syrians are beginning to find a tenuous perch in the economy. But like many refugee hosting countries that are already strained to provide jobs for local populations, Turkey has rules that keep Syrians from easily opening businesses: For every Syrian you employ, you need to hire five Turks, two entrepreneurs told me. The result: many Syrians operate in the informal economy, while Turkish authorities generally turn a blind eye.
Jihan isn’t certain how to spark sales. Language is a barrier in Turkey: To support her family – her husband is disabled – she has taken on work as a hairdresser. The family gets some aid from the Turkish government, enough to afford the few hundred dollars monthly rent on the apartment. The children are in school.
The women have tried different products to see what can work, from crocheted shower bags to carved wooden boxes. When their access to the soap factory near Aleppo was cut off, Jihan found an Aleppo soap factory in Turkey. She’s rented a nearby storage facility to hold the soap, and there’s a room in the apartment for the sewing machine and for packaging. To welcome me that day she and Ibtessan cooked a Syrian feast, grape leaves, pastries filled with rice, and an eggplant dish that tastes fresher than any I’ve ever had. Welcome is a point of honor in the Middle East.
“Don’t eat so much of one thing that you can’t try the others,” says Ibtessan. I worry about how they’ve pulled such a meal together in limited circumstances – but the women of the Ghar Collective, especially Jihan, have one big thing on their side. They know how to make connections to people, through their stories and their work.
Jihan wants to give me soap for free, but her daughter is watching. “You have to teach her, her work has value,” I remind her.
Farouk, my Turkish driver, buys a lot of soap, and so do I. “How was your night?” I ask the next day when I see him. “Good,” he says. “I took a shower. The soap is really nice.”
Karam Foundation’s Attar says sales picked up in the last few days, so she plans to make a big order in January.