Editor’s Note: The Story of a Syrian Entrepreneur
Oct 28, 2021
One hard thing about being a journalist is letting a story go. Over the years, many people have shared their stories with me. I’ve written them, filed them, and then moved on. That’s the job. But it feels inhuman at times, especially when I’ve reported on poverty, conflict and violence. Back in 2015, I interviewed a woman by phone for a story in Forbes. She was an amazing lady: She had organized a collective of women to sell Aleppo soap, taking it out of the country by a dangerous road to a market in Beirut. My Forbes editors frowned at my propensity to write about businesses that didn’t fit the high-tech, fast-growth mode, so I stuck the word “entrepreneur” in the headline. And then, thank God, Women to Women International picked up the story and it got a lot of traffic, and sent many sales to the Ghar Collective. More than a million people fled the Syrian Civil War that year. Remember the heartbreaking photo of Alan Kurdi, the toddler who drowned as his family tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea? A particularly cynical woman I knew saw the photo and said something like, “how quickly we will forget.” She was right, of course. Headlines fade, and it’s not only journalists who move on. But I fight that kind of cynicism because if it turns to bitterness – well, bitterness is a soul-killing weed. “I won’t forget,” I told the cynic defiantly. Every year, I went back to Jihan to see how she was doing and how the Ghar Collective was faring. Some years, I wrote full-fledged followups; some years, I updated the stories with notes or social media posts. In 2019, I went to Istanbul to see her. Business-wise, it wasn’t a great success. After the first few years, the orders for the magnificent soap shrank to a trickle, despite the steady support of journalist Hala Droubie and Lina Sergie Attar, the founder of the Karam Foundation. If I’d known then what I know now, I think we would have helped Jihan into an accelerator for entrepreneurs. When I met Jihan two years ago, she was as gracious, powerful and dignified in person as I expected. I recruited the assistant manager of my hotel to drive me to a suburb a few hours from the city, and she welcomed both of us to dinner. I bought lots of soap – I buy it every year for Christmas gifts. I met her son, who hopes to come to the United States for school, and met the man Jihan hoped would become her daughter’s fiancé. She told me how much it meant to her that I’d called her an entrepreneur. “Tell them about us,” she said, and we hugged. Now, you’ve read my story for this year – and I’m very sad it will be the last one. We lost Jihan to Covid last week. This is the beginning of my original article:
The point in the interview when Jihan’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. Read More
And this is a link to the Karam Foundation web site, where you can buy soap to support the Ghar Collective. It is truly the best soap you will ever use. For more inspiring stories, insights and actionable funding opportunities, subscribe to Times of E’s weekly newsletter, www.timesofe.com/introduction.