Cookies and cakes prove a winner for Syrian bakers in Armenia

News Stories, 18 August 2014

© UNHCRPhoto
The two bakers in Yerevan with some of their attractive looking creations.

YEREVAN, Armenia, August 18 (UNHCR) Cupcakes and social media have helped a former travel agent in the Syrian city of Aleppo to start a new career in Armenia and pick up a prestigious award that has helped boost her baking business.

Azniv Kouyoumjian is among the estimated 12,000 members of Syria's ethnic Armenian population who have fled to Armenia since the Syrian crisis erupted in March 2011. The 27-year-old left Aleppo in 2012 and, like many other arrivals, struggled to find work due to the harsh economic climate and the language barrier.

But things began to improve when she and a fellow refugee, Sevan Tekkelian, joined an income-generation programme for Syrians, funded by UNHCR and implemented by the Armenian Red Cross Society and a government department that encourages entrepreneurs to set up new businesses.

Their innovative proposal to bake cupcakes and advertise and sell them online was accepted and the two women were given a small loan, equipment for baking and some training in how to run a business. "" was born.

Business was slow at first and there was some tough competition in a country where many people have a sweet tooth, but Azniv and Sevan were determined to succeed and help support their families. They added cakes and cookies to their range and started to focus on cupcake design a novelty in Yerevan that proved to be a winner.

"In Yerevan, all traditional cakes are delicious. There are a lot of patisseries that have been running for years that you cannot compete with if you are a new business," Azniv explained, "so we needed to make something different."

"Sevan is very good at design, so she is the one who decorates our cupcakes so beautifully," the young entrepreneur said. "We had to practice a lot. We dropped or messed up the cupcakes at least 10 times at the start, but now our cupcakes are irresistible." Designs range from cartoon characters to the flags of the nations taking part in last July's World Cup football tournament in Brazil and UNHCR's distinctive sheltering hands logo.

Unlike most other bakeries, they use Facebook to advertise and sell the cakes. Their friends and family also pass on the word about the tasty bakes. And working from home has helped cut costs, Azniv noted. "Starting your own shop is very difficult, and the rent is too expensive."

As well as doing a roaring trade, the partners have been receiving plaudits and awards for their business model, which is helping to generate even more sales.

Last March, they received the Prime Minister's Award in recognition of their successful start-up business model. As part of the prize, they were given a tablet computer. Success has given Azniv more confidence and she now dreams of buying her own pastry shop.

Her life in Syria seems such a long time ago, though she does miss Aleppo. "I had been married for only two years when we left Syria and didn't get to live in our new house. I wish I could have brought the whole house or at least our bedroom," she sighed.

But she has no desire to go back and live in the war-ravaged country. "To visit, yes. To stay, no," she stressed. Armenia is home now.

UNHCR and other humanitarian aid organizations have been supporting the Armenian government as it addresses the needs of the refugees from Syria. Assistance includes cultural orientation courses, providing rental subsidies and financial assistance, running soup kitchens, legal and job counselling services, vocational training, provision of basic medical services and access to microcredit and business support.

By Anahit Hayrapetyan and Djavaneh Bierwirth in Yerevan, Armenia




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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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