Several times a week when the roses are in full bloom, Syrian refugee Salem al-Azouq and his family rise with the dawn to hand-pick flowers in the cool morning air of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, when the vivid pink blossoms are at their most fragrant.
Together they wander through the rented field behind their shelter, carefully choosing the largest flowers and placing them into plastic buckets to retain their moisture, ready to be transformed into a range of sweet-smelling rose products.
“My children love picking the roses. They compete in choosing the most beautiful ones, distinguishing between the ones that are good for jam and the ones that are good for syrup,” Salem explains.
As well as providing the family with a livelihood, the harvest connects them with their homeland. For most of his life, Salem worked with his father on their farm in Damascus cultivating the renowned Damask roses that take their name from Syria’s capital city.
"It is a relief for the soul and the mind."
When conflict forced Salem and his family to leave Syria and move to Lebanon as refugees in 2012, he brought with him hundreds of seeds. Only 35 produced seedlings, but thanks to his experience in grafting cuttings to create new plants, he was able to expand this small nursery into the thousands of pink-flowered bushes that now grow behind his home.
“It is a relief for the soul and the mind, because I work in a field that has not changed [despite] living in a different country,” he says.
Since he began cultivation in the Bekaa, Salem has been able to grow his roses without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, ensuring his final product is organic.
Salem and his wife Nahla use the delicate petals to make their own sticky-sweet rose syrups and jams and fragrant rose water, which they sell locally. They also supply dried flowers in bulk to local factories that produce rose tea.
“We pick twice or three times a week, depending on which month it is. The season is between April and November,” he explains. “The most I picked in a week is 150 kilograms and the lowest is 22 kilograms.”
At the height of the season the roses are a source of income for others too. Salem shares the work with up to 25 workers at a time, including Syrian refugees to help pick the flowers and local Lebanese with small trucks to transport the dried flowers and other products for sale.
Outside of the growing season, Salem runs workshops for refugees and locals to teach them about organic farming techniques, including making their own fertilizers from household waste.
Agriculture is one of the few sectors in which Syrian refugees can work legally in Lebanon, and was the second biggest source of employment for Syrian refugees last year behind construction, according to a 2018 UN study.
The Bekaa Valley is Lebanon’s agricultural heartland, and hosts a greater share (37.5 per cent) of the country’s 916,000 registered Syrian refugees than any other region, providing struggling families with vital employment opportunities.
Despite being able to provide for his family in Lebanon, Salem still longs to be back home in Syria.
“The smell of the roses, they remind me of home,” he said. “When I look at my roses in the morning, I think that they would have a better future there.”