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Syrian entrepreneurs in exile

The beekeeper: honey sweetens the hardship

After fleeing the war in Syria, a woman grabs a chance to restart her family’s beekeeping business in Jordan.

Photo: Timea Fauszt/IRC

Forced by war to abandon their businesses and former lives, Syrian women are creating new opportunities for themselves and their families in the countries where they’ve found refuge. Meet five resilient and ambitious entrepreneurs in Jordan in our new multimedia series, Starting up again: Syrian entrepreneurs in exile.

Name: Um Laith*
Age: 39
From: Dara’a, Syria
Currently lives in: Irbid, Jordan
Startup: Beekeeping business
Goals: Helping to support her family and enable her four children – excellent students – to complete their education: One son stayed behind with relatives in Syria to finish high school, while another hopes to return to university in Jordan to get an engineering degree.

Um Laith shares her story:

In Syria we had land and a beekeeping business. My husband and I both have a passion for beekeeping, which we inherited from our parents.

We came to Jordan back in 2013. I felt like I was on a boat amidst a storm. I didn’t know where I was or where I was heading; it was a confusing period.

Syrian woman helps her husband put on his protective beekeeping suit

Um Laith helps her husband put on his protective beekeeping suit, which they purchased with a small-business startup grant the IRC provides to refugees.

Photo: Timea Fauszt/IRC

We found it very difficult when we first arrived. I spent most of my time at home. I tried to sell some homemade food; it helped a little. I didn’t know a lot of people here so I couldn’t sell so much.

We’re struggling a lot because of the general situation, but our faith in God is strong, and we’re hoping for the best. Wherever we find an opportunity to enhance our lives, we take it.

I heard about the small-business training program at the International Rescue Committee’s women’s center and told the IRC that I am a beekeeper and would like to be supported with a startup project.

I didn’t want to spend my time going to organizations asking for support and end up getting an aid package here and there. We want to work, to produce. We want to live a normal life, like how other people are living.

We want to work, to produce. We want to live a normal life.

I also heard the IRC had counseling sessions, so I signed up and took ten sessions with Dr. Suzanne Matalkah. I was going through a lot of stress at the time, stress from our situation and the news we were hearing from Syria...my relatives losing their homes and family members dying. I was also worried about my son who stayed in Syria.

Dr. Suzanne Matalkah​ supported me a lot and lifted my spirits. She used to tell me that I’m a strong and courageous woman and that I shouldn’t collapse now; that I should stay strong to be able to support my children and husband.

Moving forward

After a while, [the IRC] called me to tell me that the small-business support sessions were starting so I went and signed up. The ladies were talking about starting cooking and dessert-making businesses. When they asked me, I told them I’m good at many things like cooking and agriculture, but that there’s another thing that I enjoy doing: beekeeping.

Abu Karam tends to the beehives

Um Laith’s husband Abu Karam tends to the beehives they are keeping in their neighbor's olive grove in Irbid, Jordan.

Photo: Timea Fauszt/IRC

Everyone was surprised. They told me that it’s a very unique and special project and that I should focus on it.

The sessions were very helpful. I didn’t miss a single one. I met so many people and expanded my network. The sessions lasted for three months, one session per week.

They taught me how to budget and price my products. I didn’t know how to calculate my costs before, know what the overheads are, decide on a profit percentage and document everything.

We learned things like customer service, how to attract customers, where to promote and market our products; all of this helped a lot. The most important thing I learned was how to document everything I buy and do.

We bought the first beehive less than a year ago, and almost three months ago bought three more hives and some new equipment with an IRC grant [of 500 JOD ($700)]. I had to buy the hive frames separately and build them myself so that it would be less expensive.

Farm owners here refuse to let us keep beehives on their farms, even though it’s beneficial for them and increases honey production. Bees move pollen from flower to flower with their feet, which helps in speeding up the process of pollination [of crops] – so there are benefits for both the farm owner and the beekeeper. If we put the hives farther away where there are many flowers, we would have to pay more for transportation. Since we don’t have a large amount of beehives, we decided to keep the beehives on our neighbor’s vacant land.

Syrian woman and her husband tending to beehives in Jordan

Um Laith and her husband work four to six days a week producing honey on their neighbor’s land. Although the family is only making a small profit, Um Laith is thrilled to be a part of something again. “We’re starting up; we gained the hives and customers. It’s enough for me that we’re working and producing.”

Photo: Timea Fauszt/IRC

It took us three months to produce 5.5 kilograms (12lbs) of honey. We work four to six days a week, but it depends on the needs and conditions. For example, if it’s a windy day we can’t work.

We sold all the honey we made to our landlord at one kilogram for 15 JOD ($21). In the market, the prices range from 10-20 JOD per kilogram, but not all of it is pure, most of it is sugar.

The beekeeping business hasn’t improved our financial state yet. I’m still not making so much profit, but at least I’m not ending up with losses. It’s enough for me that we’re working and producing something.

And there are a lot of people waiting for our second batch of honey—they have already made their orders. 

*Names changed for privacy reasons

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Refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe