It was a few months after the Syrian protests for democracy had turned into what has evolved to be an ugly civil war that Hala Droubi began running into a growing number of women facing economic hardships.
“They had always lived well; they had a stable life and a decent income and suddenly things had taken a dramatic shift with the loss of family members – often the breadwinners – and with the loss of jobs and forced eviction from houses and entire cities,” Droubi remembered.
It was clear that the war in Syria was not coming to a peaceful end soon and that the hope for democracy had been taken over by the fear of an open-ended conflict that created many refugees and displaced people.
The situation was extremely tough for Syrians, but even more so for those Palestinians who had found a path to Syria as refugees during the early decades of the Israeli wars and occupation of their land.
“It was a hard time for people in general and while there were some parts of Syria that were almost fully spared from the war, there were parts that were devastated to the maximum,” Droubi told Ahram Online.
And while some families, both Syrian and Palestinian, found an early exit from the country before things took a catastrophic turn, many had nowhere to go.
“They would move from one place in Syria to another, but they were still there,” Droubi said. “And even when one leaves their city and find another place to live in, they still have to survive, even at a very basic level, and need some income to sustain them,” she added.
Towards the end of the second year of the conflict, which is now in its eighth year, Droubi started to meet women who were resorting to some basic skills to generate income.
“They were making all sorts of things: bedspreads, table covers and so on,” she recalled.
With the help of Jihan, a Damascus-based woman, Droubi managed to create an informal workforce that brought together a little under a hundred women who were working in parallel to produce what could generally be called traditional Syrian crafts.
A year later, and with more and more women joining in to find a dignified income-generating opportunity, some of the “members of the working force” decided to add a new category of product to what had so far mainly been needlework: making bay laurel-based soap.
Saboun el-gharis a traditional Syrian soap that is based on the highly aromatic bay laurel plant.
It is said to have its origins in Aleppo, one of the Syrian cities most devastated by the war.
“The city has lost so much, but it has not lost its tradition of this soap,” Droubi remembered.
This particular soap sold very well. “It is all natural and it has a nice smell and a soothing effect on the skin, and it was very well-received,” she said.
As the demand for the soap increased, and as it was getting close to Christmas, some women thought that it might be a good idea to sell the soap in hand-made crochet bags.
“It worked so well; we had the soap marketed on social media and we sold so much of it, and all the while, Jihan was encouraging more and more women to keep producing not just the soap but the traditional needlework they were making, and we managed to increase the sales, which was mostly done overseas after we got the items shipped abroad with people travelling or with visitors returning home,” Droubi said, adding that Lebanon was a particularly good market for the products.
“It was good because it helped generate some income to help people meet their very basic needs and live with dignity but it was also problematic in a way,” she said.
While wanting to help women overcome the economic hardship that was coming along with an endless conflict, neither Jihan nor Droubi wanted to antagonise the authorities “or anyone else, for that matter.”
“It was very important that we made it clear to all concerned that this was basic civil society work and that there was no aspect of generating money to fund any other cause then putting food to the table of hungry children or providing medicine for the sick,” Droubi said.
Still, she added, it was important not to over-promote the project, to avoid sending the wrong message.
“The money that the project generated was nothing big at all; it was just about enough to help people make ends meet and the whole project was dependent on the help of kind people who were willing to take the soap or bedspreads and sell them and get the money sent to someone back home in Syria; and then it was up to Jihan and the core group of her aides to secure the distribution of the money,” she said.
A couple more years down the road, as the UN was changing envoys for Syria with no hope of an end to the war in sight, Jihan, “the heart of the project” had to leave Syria to join family members who had found safety away from home.
“This destabilised the operation a little and the production and sales both slowed down significantly; it was also a time when less people were coming and going from and to Syria; it was as a very had time for women who wished to keep doing their work and generating money for their families,” Droubi said.
This year, as things seemed to be easing down a little, Droubi was hoping for a better luck in the sales of the traditional products, especially the bay laurel soap.
“We have been trying to use social media and the generosity of those who still wish to help and maybe tomorrow will be a better day for everyone - we will see,” she said.
“But whatever happens, I will always remember and cherish the memory of those defiant Syrian women who worked together, mostly without having ever met one another, to be able to consolidate their chances of surviving a very harsh civil war,” Droubi said.
Seven years later, the project is still on despite the fact that some of the leading women who had launched it have fled Syria.
A few weeks before Christmas, a website was launched for those who want to buy the products online during Holidays, and it has proved successful.
According to Droubi, the project has had its highs and its lows, having survived because the war has caused many families to be in need for extra sources of income.
Droubi believes the project will live on beyond the Syrian war not only because it will probably take a while for the economy to recover, but also because the products have been so popular and highly demanded.
Photo: Droubi Photo: Droubi