Syrian Conflict-Economy 101: How Business Works From The Ground Up On The Fringes Of A Civil War

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Syrian refugee camp
A husband and wife who fled their home in Syria operate a small market selling mostly candy in the Atmeh refugee camp.

ATMEH, Syria – Amid rows of dusty tents in a refugee camp on the Syrian-Turkish border, the main “street” runs past makeshift stores and kitchen-cafes cobbled together from plastic tarps, planks and cinder blocks. Here, in a tattered facsimile of the life they left behind, residents of the Atmeh refugee camp buy and sell the basic essentials – or, at least, those that are available to them.

The surrounding countryside, in Syria’s Idlib province, was once a fertile agricultural region of hillside olive groves. Now, more than 20,000 refugees from the country’s civil war have found refuge here, and the camp -- like others in Syrian border zones, and even in nearby Turkish towns --  has fostered what is basically a ground-zero economy.

Downhill from the tents, stores and kitchens, opposite a leaking public toilet block, a man who gives his name as Abu Amar runs a clothing stall. His stock, he says, comes mainly from Aleppo -- less than 30 miles away – and is delivered by his son, who picks up merchandise from bazaars and shops in both rebel-held and government-controlled areas. It is not a lucrative venture, but it helps his family survive. “It gets us enough to eat and drink,” he says. “But no more.”

On the margins of any conflict zone, economies are stripped to their most basic elements – production, trade and consumption for the sake of survival. There is also an opposing tendency, as people attempt to reconstruct those economies from the most basic level. Nowhere are both more evident today than in Syria, where three years of brutal civil war have led to the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian disaster and made day-to-day existence a challenge for millions -- and where even business proprietors are reluctant to give their full names for fear of repercussions.

More than 140,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Meanwhile, 6.5 million have been displaced inside the country and 2.4 million have sought refuge outside its borders, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Reliefweb.

Not surprisingly, Syria’s economy has been devastated. More than half of its 22.4 million people now live in poverty (an increase of 7.9 million during the past three years), and 4.4 million now live in extreme poverty, according to a recent report by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Though aid is being provided, it will likely fall short, and the U.N. estimates that nearly 75 percent of Syria’s population will need humanitarian assistance in 2014. Meanwhile, starvation is a real and widespread risk, according to aid organizations. As a result, at home and in neighboring countries, Syrians are desperately trying to provide for themselves and their families through work, trade or any other means available.

In refugee camps, basic markets have developed. At the Atmeh camp, where residents are becoming resigned to a lengthy stay, stalls have sprung up selling anything and everything their owners can find. Some are basic, offering a small selection of chocolates, candies and sodas spread out on planks. Others are more established, such as a café with cinder block walls and a nearby shack serving as a barbershop.

Across the border in Turkey - where UNHCR estimates there are almost 560,000 refugees – the situation is in some ways similar.  A member of the Syrian council committee in a state-run camp near Antakya, who asked that he be referred to only as “Mohammed,” says the center of that settlement has hosted a number of makeshift shops selling vegetables and basic groceries since the end of 2012.

However, he adds, more sustainable development is needed given the desperate need for employment. “They say the revolution could last eight years, so first of all we need work,” he says. “We are not happy to stay here, but if we are to, then we must do something.” He noted that while there have been attempts to open woodwork or machine shops, so far none have been successful. Mohammed has an engineering background – he once ran mines and quarries in Syria – and would like to put his skills to use. “Before the war, I knew a lot about mechanics,” he says. “Now I have lost everything, but I could open a shop doing that.”

Though Syrian refugees have been dispersed around the world, not all end up in refugee camps. Some cannot secure a spot in one and others have the money to avoid them altogether and rent or buy accommodation in border towns. In some cases, wealthier business owners have set up shop in their new location, competing with local firms.

The less well-off are doing anything they can. Mohammed, 41, once played soccer for the Syrian national team. Now, he runs a mobile kebab stand in Antakya, a little more than 10 miles from the Syrian border. He enthusiastically describes his former life, recalling his days playing at club-level for a Greek team. Today, his existence is very different. “Things here are so hard,” he says, gesturing around the quiet backstreets, adding that the local population offers little support to refugees and is occasionally openly hostile. If there is peace in Syria soon, he said he hopes to return and coach soccer there. If not, he plans to attempt to reach Europe to do the same, which will not, he concedes, be an easy journey.

Some find business opportunities in the war itself, for better or worse. In Kilis, a town just across the Turkish border north of Aleppo, Ahmad Haidar, who once taught computer programming, began a new life as a “fixer,” helping members of the international press in Syria. But even that is impossible now. The rise of extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in the north of the country – which has led to numerous kidnappings and killings of journalists, both Western and local -- means working safely there has become a practical impossibility for foreign journalists, so Haidar has no customers. “I had to quit,” he says. “No one comes to Kilis anymore.”

Others are directly profiting from the war. In markets near the border, people can be seen loading cars with Syrian license plates with blankets and other survival essentials, then driving them across the border. The motivation is not humanitarian relief, but profit. Trade goes both ways, local residents say, with Syrians smuggling cheap petrol over to the Turkish side.

Mulham al-Jundi, manager of the office of Syrian aid organization Watan in Reyhanli, Turkey, estimates that at crossings into Syria, there is now a 4-to-1 ratio of trucks carrying goods for sale versus those carrying aid. This, he says, is starting to have a major effect on Watan’s operations. “If you see the queue of trucks trying to access Syria, you might find that 80 percent are there for commercial purposes. Syrians need the movement of goods between Syria and Turkey – they need to eat and to work, but at the same time, it’s affecting humanitarian organizations.” Still, in addition to providing aid, NGOs such as Watan – and particularly those that are Syrian owned – do provide essential goods, and they also generate work for many displaced Syrians, both in and outside the country.

Watan was founded in 2006 by Syrian activists working in the Gulf to offer support to their countrymen abroad. When the uprising began, the organization’s founders decided to work more closely with people inside the country on a humanitarian basis, and part of Watan’s operations is still focused on providing small grants to projects inside the war-torn country. “We want to give people a chance of work,” al-Jundi says. “There are around 3 million internally displaced people in the north of Syria without any kind of income or employment opportunities.” The plan, he says, is to find people from inside different communities with business ideas, then provide funding, training and support.

The biggest success story so far -- albeit one that’s taking place in Turkey -- is a sewing workshop in Reyhanli that employs more than 80 women. The shop initially began as a charity project, but Co-Founder and Manager Marwa Sayd Essa plans to develop it further as a viable business. Products such as shawls, baby blankets and tablet and laptop cases are already shipped to the U.S., Canada, Europe and the Gulf -- at a profit. Essa intends to develop branding for the business and expand along (though not across) the Syrian border, hoping to establish workshops near each of the more than a dozen refugee camps in southern Turkey. “We think of this as sustainable work, not just doing something for sake of it. Our products are very good quality, and we are selling them at a high price,” Essa says.

Several ideas are being circulated within Watan for different microfinance projects. The next could be a granary, says al-Jundi, which will meet the need for flour inside Syria in an easier and less expensive manner than importing it from Turkey. Farming is another potential area of investment and an especially important one, as it directly provides much-needed food and is one of the few enterprises still able to operate in the war-ravaged country after massive de-industrialization and capital flight. “The farmers are there and ready to work, especially in the North,” he says. “They just need support.”

Watan itself started with a fully volunteer workforce, but soon began adding staff as humanitarian projects required more comprehensive support. There are currently more than 20 full-time employees working out of the Reyhanli office and a similar number based in Tripoli, Lebanon, focused on the south of Syria. Temporary staffers are hired as needed, including for ongoing medical operations, which employ an average of 200 doctors at any given time.

A short walk from Watan’s Reyhanli base is the four-story headquarters of Orient Humanitarian Relief, a privately owned aid agency bankrolled by Dubai-based Syrian businessman Ghassan Aboud. At the beginning of the conflict, the organization funded treatment of Syrians in independent Turkish hospitals at a cost of $500,000 per month. It has since established a network of more than 12 hospitals and rehab centers inside Syria, where it is easier and cheaper to treat the wounded. Orient also runs another sewing workshop, a school and a medical clinic in Reyhanli. Altogether, Office Manager Dr. Ammar Martini says, the organization employs as many as 2,000 people, including more than 400 doctors.

Other organizations provide a mix of aid and employment inside Syria. In Maaret Al Nouman, also in Idlib province, a group of NGOs has established a bakery producing 50,000 loaves of bread a day. The project employs 36 people at an average salary of $130 per month. It is a vital source of support for the town, and helps fill a pressing dietary need in Syria, where bread prices have risen by 500 percent in some areas, according to a recent report from International Rescue Committee.

A spokesperson for the main sponsor of the group-bakery endeavor (an aid organization known as Every Syrian) who asked that he be identified only as Abu Faisal to ensure the safety of family members still living in Syria, stresses the importance of providing some form of employment rather than just aid. “A job for anyone is a true lifeline and more than anything else, it’s what people crave now,” he says. “It brings income, which brings stability to a person’s life. Holding a job in a war zone may seem odd and not very stable, but when there is no other option, it has to make do.”

The war has done more than interrupt Syrians’ trades and professions; it has also prevented others from receiving adequate education or training. The school dropout rate in Syria has now reached 49 percent, according to UNRWA. In that arena, aid organizations are also stepping in to fill the gaps whenever they can, sometimes on a large scale – such as Orient’s school – and as part of broader operations. At the National Syrian Project for Prosthetic Limbs (NSPPL), a clinic just outside Reyhanli that provides artificial legs to people injured in the war, Manager Raed al-Masri says none of its staff had medical or technical backgrounds, but that they were trained by visiting medical teams from Pakistan, Turkey and the U.K. (al-Masri himself used to teach math in Homs). Part of the reason for such adaptive training, he says, is to allow work to continue in Syria itself, which is too dangerous for most foreigners to enter. It also provides employment for those who need it most.

Dr. Mahrous Alsoud, a Syrian surgeon and member of the NSPPL board, says the clinic is meant to provide more than just treatment for the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 upper- or lower-limb amputees in need of care across the country. “When this crisis finishes, we will try to establish bases in the north and south of Syria and use a mobile unit to go around and reach these people and provide support. [Also] we want to help them find jobs,” he says. The clinic’s staff embodies this thinking. Abdul, who has an administrative roll at the clinic, first visited it to receive a replacement leg, then stayed on in full-time employment. His brother Ahmad – who once studied English Literature in Aleppo -- is a technician there.

In a war with no apparent end, more see training and re-training as essential to helping Syrians make a living and begin new lives.

Back at the Atmeh commercial encampment, the Maram Foundation has set up a women’s center in a large, dusty tent, designed to provide instruction in various disciplines. Mariam, the foundation manager, who is originally from Hama, says the center aims to help equip women with a skill they can use to survive after they leave the refugee camp. “We’re trying to teach women to be able to look after themselves,” she says. The center started as a small school to teach handicrafts, but as the women there became more competent, they, too, began selling the dresses and other goods made there. Now, they are learning to cut and style hair too. The next step will be to provide computer classes, an idea suggested by one of the students, to teach basics skills to those who have never used a computer before.

Though the impact is not as pronounced, Turkish businesses are also experiencing huge changes as a result of the war. Some Turkish businesses in the border zone suffer, while others adapt and profit from new opportunities.  

Antakya was once a popular tourist town. Its picturesque cobbled streets, long history and beautiful surroundings ensured a steady stream of visitors from Syria and abroad. But it is now better known for the influx of Syrian refugees and its position as a logistics base of the rebellion in the early days of the war. There has been a drastic decline in tourists during the past three years: At the Hatay Archeological Museum, employee Turkan Kaya estimates that visitors have declined by as much as 70 percent since the Syrian uprising began.

Levent Cimcim, front office manager of the town-center Buyuk Antakya Hotel, estimates that international guests have declined by as much as 80 percent since 2011. Some new group bookings were made recently, but Cimcim is worried they may cancel, despite what he sees as the city’s continued appeal. “In Antakya, everything is the same as before. … It’s a beautiful city, it’s still good!” he says.

In a nearby Turkcell shop, an employee who asked to be identified only as Ibrahim, estimates that he has seen a fivefold increase in Syrian customers alongside his regular Turkish customer base. And in the town’s famous covered market, camouflage fatigues and miscellaneous military gear are selling briskly alongside the usual wares. One tailor says he makes uniforms for rebel brigades as well as suits.

A short walk from the bazaar is a large store selling military supplies of every kind and in every size, from wet- and cold- weather gear to tactical vests in an array of different camouflage patterns. The bearded men who run the outlet are Syrian and refuse to give their names or allow pictures. Tellingly, their stock includes T-shirts with the logo of opposition Jihadi groups fighting in Syria.

Other businesses have capitalized on the influx of Western NGO workers and journalists covering the conflict.  Foreigner-friendly restaurants have opened as well as a new bar with a cocktail menu in English. The Catholic guesthouse, which used to be full of tourists making pilgrimages to Antioch, now caters to journalists and NGO staffers almost exclusively, says Sister Barbara, a German nun who runs it.

Yet the influx of refugees has inevitably led to tensions, especially where newly established Syrian businesses compete with older Turkish operations. Rental prices in Reyhanli have also been driven up, local residents complain – a problem that is even worse along Syria’s southern borders, where Lebanon has taken in 858,641 refugees during the past three years, compared with its 2011 population of 4.1 million. In Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp, which has housed Palestinians since 1947 but is now home to ever-increasing numbers of Syrians (both Palestinian and otherwise), a 10-square-foot room in a haphazardly constructed multistory buildings costs as much as $200 per month, says Camp Services Officer Nasser Saleh. For new arrivals who are unable to seek work, Lebanon’s high prices are almost untenable. One newly arrived Syrian resident described the shock of his family having to buy everything after having once cultivated their land and produced their own olives, cheese, olive oil and vegetables. “Beirut is not for us; we cannot afford it here,” he said.

It is a common grievance, and has led some refugees to opt out of the border zone and its ground-zero economy, to risk the bullets and bombs back on their home turf.

“The cost of living to them is shocking and they are completely lost, they really don’t know what to do,” Saleh says.

Others have been reduced to begging on Lebanon’s streets, and the most desperate of all are those who have resorted to selling a kidney, according to numerous reports, including in Der Spiegel, last year. One source quoted by Der Spiegel said that there were more willing sellers of kidneys than buyers in need, which was driving down prices, indicating that the laws of supply and demand hold true for organs in war zones, too.

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