Ala’a recalls the first day opening her vegetable store: “There's something I can't forget - we were standing outside the store, and my dad told me, “Take a picture of me next to the signboard because I am the king of fruits and vegetables, so the people passing by can see the signboard and know who is the king of fruits and vegetables.””

After her father’s vegetable business failed three times, instead of admitting defeat, Ala’a decided to persist in the face of misfortune. She would remind herself daily to never give up: “This store will work out,” Ala’a insisted. “Maybe it will take one, two, three, or four days; it doesn't matter; I will wait. If I face obstacles and fail, I get right back up.”

Ala’a’s perseverance comes as Lebanon deals with a severe economic crisis that began in 2019, leading to skyrocketing rates of hyperinflation and poverty. The crisis has affected everyone living in Lebanon, including the 1.5 million Syrian refugees seeking safety in the country, making it increasingly difficult for families to make ends meet. The devastating 2020 explosion in Beirut caused between $3.8 - $4.6 billion in damages, further exacerbating the crisis.

George Balsamarojian delivers vegetables to Ala'a and her father, Hussein Ali Fakih, outside their vegetable shop.
George Balsamarojian delivers vegetables to Ala'a and her father, Hussein Ali Fakih, outside their vegetable shop.
Photo: Elena Heatherwick for the IRC

In the background of this crisis, Ala’a’s father’s van burned down along with another car. The owner demanded a large sum of money from Ala’a’s family and since, at the time, her father’s vegetable business wasn’t doing well, she offered to sell her gold to pay him off. The frustration she felt from this event fueled her determination to build a successful business in order to provide for her family. 

Despite people telling her the vegetable business is a man’s job, Ala’a remained steadfast in her belief that there is nothing a woman can’t do.“I can be a mother and a vegetable grocer who helps her husband and her family and takes care of her daughter and herself. That gives me power, not weakness.” Ala’a believes it’s important to show society that women are capable or anything. “I can make it like a man can make it; I am no different from a man. I can do everything a man can.” 

Ala'a stands with her father, Hussein Ali Fakih, outside their vegetable shop in Burj Hammoud, Beirut.
Ala'a and her father, Hussein Ali Fakih, outside their vegetable shop in Burj Hammoud, Beirut. She named her store after her father, “The King of Fruits and Vegetables.”
Photo: Elena Heatherwick for the IRC

For Ala’a, it is essential for women to have financial independence so they don’t have to rely on anyone else to support and provide for them, “It makes our personality stronger and boosts our confidence.” She learned to be confident from her mother, who raised Ala’a and her siblings with very little means; saving up money in any way she could, because she was determined to get them a private education. Ala’a says, with pride,“I owe [my parents] everything. What I am doing right now is because I don't want to see my father fall.” 

Ala’a says confidence is an important value to instill into children from a young age. She often tells her daughter, “When someone feels they are a hero and can make it, nothing can stop them.” 

Ala'a and her 5-year-old daughter Imane.
Ala’a tells Imane to always visualize a hero inside her, because, “When someone feels they are a hero and can make it, nothing can stop them.”
Photo: Elena Heatherwick for the IRC

After learning about the International Rescue Committee and Citi Foundations Resilient Futures programme from Facebook post, Ala’a immediately applied for a business grant. The electricity blackouts caused by the crisis placed financial strain on Ala’a’s produce shop, but she was able to use part of the grant to buy rechargeable lights to cut back on costs. The programme also provided her with training in financial management, marketing, and customer service. This, combined with her father’s years of experience in the produce business, meant Ala’a’s small business could finally bloom.

Ala'a's father kisses her forehead.
“After we started the business, and after I gained experience from him [Ala’a’s Father], we began to understand each other even from a look. So, he would wink at me, meaning things are going well. We became a team.”
Photo: e

“Family is everything to me, and everything I do is for family,” says Ala’a “Family is like oxygen to me.”

Remembering how the beginning of the crisis had caused arguments between her parents, Ala’a can’t help but feel proud of all she’s accomplished through her business; “What I did brought laughter back into our household. It brought life back into our home.”

Ala'a stands behind her 5-year-old daughter, Imane, who plays with a guitar.
Friday is designated mother-daughter day so Ala'a and her 5-year-old, Imane, can spend time together.
Photo: Elena Heatherwick for the IRC

In her free time, Ala’a shares her love of music - a love that was handed-down to her by her father - with her daughter. Since Ala’a and her parents come from a lineage of vegetable grocers, her father is proud that she was able to inherit, and carry on, the family profession. “Hopefully, this profession will be inherited by the following generations,” says Ala’a, beaming at her daughter. 

Ala'a with her mother and daughter, who all hug while facing the camera.
Ala’a with her mother and daughter.
Photo: Elena Heatherwick for the IRC

With the crisis still ongoing in Lebanon, Ala’a focuses on three things as sources of light during these dark times: “Iman's eyes, when I see them shining as she smiles,” she says, “my mom's laugh, and my dad's good mood.”