Candy man offers Syrian refugees a sweet taste of home
Hunched over a stove outside his shelter in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp, Abu Rabee’ stirs a large pot of thick, sugary syrup with a wooden paddle. It is an exhausting process that takes more than an hour, but he insists the end result is worth the effort.
The 45-year-old Syrian refugee is making “raha”, Syria’s answer to Turkish delight, the most prized version of which originates from his home city of Dara’a, in the country’s south.
For Abu Rabee’, the endless stirring is a labour of love. Before the crisis, his factory in Dara’a used to produce 5,000 packs of raha a day, and the well-known brand was eagerly consumed throughout Syria and beyond.
"I forget about life here in the camp and in my mind I’m transported back home.”
“My family has owned the business for three generations, and I tell people that I first tasted raha with my mother’s milk,” Abu Rabee’ told visitors from UNHCR. “When I make it, it’s like I’m in another world. I forget about life here in the camp and in my mind I’m transported back home.”
The start of the conflict in 2011 had an immediate impact on the business. The closure of the highway from the capital, Damascus, made it harder to source raw materials and packaging, while the price of sugar, the principle ingredient for raha, soared.
“Demand was also affected. Raha is traditionally eaten during celebrations – weddings, birthdays, births – but people were scared and there were no more parties,” Abu Rabee’ explained.
Though he struggled to keep operations going, one day in mid-2012 while he was at the factory he received news that his house had been hit by shelling, killing his wife. Abu Rabee’ left Syria with his four youngest children and crossed the border into Jordan.
His four eldest sons remained in Syria to look after the business, but shortly after his departure the factory was destroyed in another bombardment. His sons managed to salvage some of the machinery from the wreckage, and continue to make raha inside Syria even now, albeit in far lower volumes than before the crisis.
“They move the machines around between safe areas. It’s dangerous but it’s all they know, and if they didn’t do this they wouldn’t be able to put food on the table,” Abu Rabee’ said. “There used to be 100 raha factories in Dara’a, but now they are the only ones still left in business.”
"Raha is my life and my profession, and I’m very proud of that.”
He dreams of going back to Syria when the crisis is over to rebuild his home and his factory, even if it means starting from scratch. “But before that can happen the air strikes have to stop, and people on all sides of the conflict must put down their weapons,” he said.
In the meantime, Abu Rabee’ is entering his fifth year as a resident of Za’atari camp in northern Jordan, where he remarried and now has five children. When he first arrived, the camp was newly opened and he was living in a single tent, but even so, it wasn’t long before he made his first batch of raha.
With no factory or machinery to help, he remembered from his childhood how his father used to make the sweets by hand, and recreated the method using a camp stove and saucepan. It is a difficult technique that has taken him four years to perfect.
“After I made the first batch, other refugees came to the tent and were eating it as fast as I could cut it up,” he recalled. “Some of the men were crying as they ate. Raha means ‘comfort’ in Arabic, and it brings back happy memories for people – it’s a taste of home.”
With the family now living in several prefab shelters, Abu Rabee’ is able to make enough raha using his large stove and pot for around 50 small packets per batch, which he does every week or so. Some residents in the camp buy the sweets for special occasions or just as a treat. Others don’t have any money, so he gives it to them in the knowledge that their promises of future payment may never materialize.
“I earn a bit of money selling what I make, but I don’t really do it as a business,” he explained. “I do it to keep myself busy, and to feel normal again. It’s an emotional thing for me. Raha is my life and my profession, and I’m very proud of that.”