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To put food on the table in Turkey, enterprising Syrians sell 'taste of home'

Syrian refugees in Turkey are importing coffee, cigarettes, and other simple and inexpensive products from their homeland to sell to fellow refugees. The extra income barely covers costs for many households. 

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    Syrian child refugee Ibrahim chopping tomatoes as he prepares kebabs to sell to his compatriots in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli on Dec. 13, 2014.
    Dominique Soguel
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For the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees struggling to eke out a living along the Turkish border, selling a taste of home – basic products brought from their war-torn nation – has proved a surefire business that helps families stay afloat in exile.

But running such shoestring enterprises is challenging, and profit margins are insufficient to sustain larger households.

Syria is much cheaper than Turkey, so it is good business to bring things here and offer people these small flavors from home,” says Daad Ismail, a refugee from Hama, who makes just enough to cover her share of rent by selling Syrian cigarettes, tea, and coffee. “Syrians want to drink the tea and coffee brands they know and love.”

Such small-time vendors are peppered around the lusterless town of Reyhanli, a major refugee hub. Some peddle their goods from basic street stands, while others rely on word of mouth to bring customers to visit bleak warehouses that double as homes and shops.

Often the vendors are older men who, unlike their children, are unable to engage in physically demanding labor, or women, like Ms. Ismail, who are heads of household.

“Syrian tea and cardamom coffee are better than Turkish ones,” is a common refrain among customers who relish such tastes from home.

Omar Hashem has been in the business for the past seven months. Lacking the required documents, he cannot enter Syria via the nearest legal crossing, Bab Al-Hawa. Instead, he relies on middlemen, who travel regularly to Syria to supply popular goods in exchange for a cut.

Mr. Hashem’s stand consists of a wooden slab propped up by cigarette cartons. It’s among the best stocked in town: Layalina tea, Bun Al-Hamwy coffee, Al-Hamra cigarettes, Al-Kharta mate, and Hanna spam. “There are many Syrians in Reyhanli, and these are the products they want,” says Hashem.

Price arbitrage is the key, he says. “The most expensive cigarettes I sell cost 3 Turkish lira ($1.27), whereas in Turkey smokes can cost up to 10 Turkish lira ($4.24)." Still, he says his daily profit margin is only $15, which he keeps hidden in a Q-Tips box. The amount covers less than half his family’s rent and utility costs.

Five earners, one household

In a sense, Hashem and Ismail are among the fortunate refugees, since they had enough capital to open a retail outlet. But like many others, they are barely scraping by, and both have burned through most of their savings. “Five people have to work to cover the expenses of one household,” says Abdel Hassin Hassan, another Hama native.

Children like Ibrahim from Idlib work to close that gap. The 13-year-old skips cooks up a storm in a rickety minivan owned by a Turk. He skips school to work 10-hour days, chopping coriander, tomatoes, and onions with the speed of a master chef. His signature dish is a spicy kebab, but he prefers the simpler taste of mom’s lentil soup.

“I miss home the most and then school,” he says. 

Abu Ahmed, another vendor, fled Ghouta, the scene of chemical attacks in 2013 and chronic food shortages, with his family two years ago. Before the war, he used to repair refrigerators and washing machines. Now the only way to feed his family is to peddle tea, sugar, and other goods brought from in Syria.

But even that livelihood is under threat with tightened restrictions on both sides of the border.

“The Turks turn us back because they think our tiny businesses are financing Islamist extremists, and [Syrian] rebels turn us back because they think food products should not be leaving the country when people are hungry,” he explains. “The problem is we have nothing left in our pockets. This is all we can do.”

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