This International Day of Women, we have chosen to highlight Jehan B., a Palestinian-Syrian woman who founded a women’s collective to help support women who were displaced by fighting in Syria. This collective makes and sells decorative soaps, which we proudly feature in our Scents of Syria collection.
When the 2011 revolution broke out in Syria, Jehan B. found herself wanting to help people in need. Thousands of people were becoming displaced, moving from the outskirts of Damascus and other parts of Syria to the capital, where they were struggling to make ends meet. At first, she began to quietly collect aid to distribute. “It was exhausting. Constantly asking for assistance, and trying to figure out where the money was going to come from the next day,” she said in a Skype call. "Every day was a struggle."
The constant uncertainty of securing funds gave her an idea. The people in need, all of whom were displaced women who had lost their husbands, were in need of more than just aid. They were in need of work. Many of them were unhappy being recipients of aid, feeling as though they no longer had any dignity or agency. Jehan proposed that they start a project to support themselves. “I secured the initial money needed for the project, got them together, and we brainstormed ideas. That’s when we decided upon the idea to sell soaps, specifically Ghar soap.”
Ghar soap is a traditional Syrian soap which has been produced in Aleppo, Syria for centuries. For most Syrians, the scent of these soaps represent a constant and comforting part of Syrian culture and history. For the women in the collective, the soaps represented an opportunity to reclaim their lives and dignity.
Jehan was tasked with finding a place to sell the soaps. “In Damascus, it was so hard to sell them. People were barely making enough money to cover their basic necessities that they were unable to buy luxuries like this. So I decided to go to Beirut. I would go to Beirut every week, selling the soap. I would leave in the morning and return at night,” Jehan told us.
In Beirut, Jehan made connections with various people who would later on connect her with Karam. Hala Droubi, a journalist and Karam Innovative Education mentor, eventually introduced Jehan to Lina Sergie, who proposed that Karam buy a portion of their soaps to sell in the United States. The business then flourished, with now over 50 women and their families supported by the initiative.
“They’re happier now,” Jehan said of the women. At first many were unsure of how to begin, never having worked before. However, the collective partnered the experienced with the inexperienced so that they could all learn from and motivate each other.
“Work is so important to live in dignity,” she told us. “Doing this work has also helped me support myself and my family, thank God.” Jehan had to flee Syria earlier this year, after being arrested by the Syrian regime. To protect her parents, she fled to Istanbul with her children. In Istanbul, she has started a new collective. The idea is the same: to help these women support themselves and their families, and to provide a future for them. As in Damascus, the Istanbul arm of the collective works to secure housing and necessities for the families, going so far as to provide school transportation for their children.
“I hope that Syrian women continue to work, and to work well,” Jehan said. “This is an important outcome of the past four years.”
To support the collective, please visit our souk to view the Scents of Syria collection.