Syria's War Economy, And A Yogurt Startup In Damascus
As war upends the economy in Damascus, a few brave souls are launching small business projects that provide jobs for those desperate to work.
DAMASCUS — As Syria’s war economy stalls, a new crisis is affecting the suburbs south of Damascus: unemployment. With almost all of Ghouta now jobless, Abu Omar is trying to provide opportunities for the town’s idle workforce.
During the months-long siege of Damascus’s southern suburbs, he says, residents lost their jobs when shops were destroyed by random shelling, and factories and plants were set ablaze. A UN survey in April of last year showed that almost one million Syrians across the country had lost their jobs and businesses since the start of the conflict in March 2011. In some areas under opposition control, activists tracking the numbers say unemployment is as high as 90%.
But Abu Omar’s small business initiatives are now providing job opportunities for a number of the city’s youth. Efforts like his could be the solution to providing employment for thousands of qualified Syrians who are desperate to work.
There is one in Douma making and selling homemade yogurt, and it is aimed specifically at employing young people whose higher education was cut short by the conflict. Yogurt was chosen because it’s easy to manufacture. It can be made in small batches in a home kitchen and involves ingredients that are accessible.
The yogurt project employs nearly 40 local residents and was funded by Syrian businessmen living abroad.
Women activists in Ghouta started a women’s-only ceramics painting project to help 30 women who had lost husbands, fathers or brothers and were suddenly looked upon as their families’ primary breadwinner. The women collected ceramic pieces and sold them to traders in Damascus. Their raw materials were also donated by Syrians living outside the country.
Local project managers in Ghouta say the myriad projects have been able to reduce the town’s unemployment by 10%.
Another project recruited teachers to work with children who have been forced out of school since the crisis began. The team of teachers received a small stipend. But one program manager says the team struggled to meet the costs of books and salaries, which can run into thousands of dollars.
Like with so much else in today’s Syria, funds for such projects are limited. Despite the project’s potential to staff dozens of young teachers, Abu Omar says it hasn’t attracted enough funding to pay living wages for the staff.
Unemployment isn’t limited to opposition areas. Government loyalists in Homs say they have lost their jobs in both the public and private sectors because many were unable to reach their offices, which were located in the besieged areas.
Faten, a 30-year-old from Homs, says she lost her job at one of the private medical clinics there after it became impossible for her to get to her office, which was located in the al-Maared neighborhood.
She says she currently depends on small local agriculture initiatives to feed herself and her family, as well as on aid provided by humanitarian groups working under the supervision of the Syrian government.
Fifty-year-old Issa says he lost large amounts of money after his trading business in the Damascus countryside slowed to a halt. He blames the security situation for the deteriorating economy.
“I remained silent and neutral since the beginning of the crisis,” he says, “but I was eventually forced to leave ... to open a cotton plant in Turkey.”