This article was originally published on Forbes.com, in 2015.
The point in the interview when Jehan’s voice cracked a little is when she talked about the women back at home, in Syria. They are the 50 women she leads in a cooperative, packaging Aleppo’s famous laurel soap in handcrafted crochet.
Amazingly, they drive their fanciful Scents of Syria line by taxicab to Beirut, and from there and with some help, sell it to markets in the United States, Dubai and Hong Kong. They earn enough to pay each of the women about $150-200 a month.
The women, many refugees who had fled other parts of Syria, work in Jehan’s living room. “It was a mixture of joy, and happiness and singing together,” she said through a translator. “Everybody would be telling stories about their homes. Then the singing and laughter would turn into tears.”
The work goes on — but without Jehan, who asked to be identified by her first name only. She fled Syria for Istanbul after an arrest by regime forces. She spent several days in detention, in a 9×6 meter cell with 30 other women, until her lawyer and her family were able to win her release. There’s no way for me to verify her story, but this is a common tactic used against women and their families, as detailed in this Human Rights Watch report.
“If your family can pay, you get out. If they can’t you stay,” she said. Jehan made a point of telling me there are many elderly women in the cells: “We stood so they could sit,” she said. And she reported witnessing torture, including rape, while she was there.
Amid the flood of refugees, and the fear provoked by terror attacks, individual stories only slowly come to the fore, especially the stories of women. But many of the approximately 2,000 Syrian refugees resettled in the United States have been women heads-of-households, widowed by the war or with injured husbands.
I’ve met refugees in the region running microbusinesses, including Badria Qatlish, who last summer was living in Zarqa, Jordan, with her husband and six children. Her husband had been unable to find work, so with the help of Atlanta-based CARE, which runs a microlending program in Zarqa, Qatlish started a business selling Syrian kubbah — a wheat pastry stuffed with ground meat — to neighbors in the small city.
‘Help was not coming’
Jehan’s story, which she told me by Skype interview through a translator, is remarkable. A wedding photographer before the war, she started delivering aid to the victims of chemical weapons attacks and helping people who were seeking refuge in her Damascus neighborhood from other parts of Syria. Then the idea for the cooperative, where her sister also works, came about.
“The outside aid was dwindling,” she said. “People were waiting for the bite to eat. Help was not coming. A lot of the women wanted to live with their own dignity.”
They came up with idea to make packaging for soap, because some of the women in the group were from the town of Jobar, famous since medieval times for a kind of delicate crochet. The soap from Aleppo is known worldwide for its healing properties, but the war has destroyed many of the soapmakers’ operations. (The BBC reported on it here.)
Aleppo is a 3.5-hour drive from Damascus, but they found people willing to make the trip. One of their couriers was shot and killed by a sniper along that road, which is particularly dangerous. The New York Times estimated 200,000 people have been killed in Syria since the war began, but some estimates are higher, up to 1 million.
I asked Jehan if she thought about stopping the work after that but, “Everything has to continue. Death does not stop you from going on,” she said.
Working by sporadic electricity
The obstacles are almost unimaginable. For instance, work hours are determined by the sporadic electricity. If the lights come back at 2 a.m., the women wake each other to take advantage of the light to work.
At first, the women created their products and then tried to sell them; they carried the cost of the inventory. With the Syrian pound dropping in value, Jehan looked outside the country to sell, driving to Beirut to find outdoor markets. Jehan’s persistence drew her to the attention of journalist Hala Droubi. “She would approach people herself and try to sell things. Very determined and persistent.”
Droubi set up a Facebook page and her second cousin, aunt and mother have all been involved in the enterprise, helping to market the cooperative’s work. Sales doubled around Christmas 2013.
“Everyone was helping me help Jehan, and it didn’t feel like charity because people loved the product. They were buying it because it was beautiful and flawless, and secondly because it’s for a good cause,” she said by email.
Droubi connected the cooperative to the Chicago-based Karam Foundation, which supports Syrian refugees with “innovative education, entrepreneurial development, and community-driven aid.” Karam became the North American distributor, said CEO Lina Sergie Attar, who said Aramex, the publicly held Dubai-based shipping giant, ships the soaps for free.
Jehan learned how to balance inventory against orders, so that now the women focus on filling orders rather than making the products and then trying to sell them. She’s trained a woman in Syria to take her place managing the orders.
Amber and musk
In the past year, Karam has purchased about 4,500 items, which it sells through its web site at prices in the $20-$30 range.
Jehan, whose husband is a driver but is currently not working, talks to her friends and co-workers back home by WhatsApp, keeping the cooperative running. Meanwhile, she is organizing a new cooperative in Istanbul to begin making lavender sachets. “Within a week she had 12 women working and asked me, OK, get me the Aramex address in Istanbul!,” wrote Attar by email.
Jehan said Turkey has the same scent as Syria — amber and musk. “Nobody knows except for the people who have lived there,” she said. “It’s the scent of goodness.”