Cookies and cakes prove a winner for Syrian bakers in Armenia
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. "Sweetheart.am" 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