Syrian refugees look to Syrian exports for reminder of home

The demand for Syrian goods, like sweets and fabric, in Germany has risen with the number of refugees within the country's borders.

Fabian Bimmer/Reuters
Anas Msouty, a trader and Syrian in Hamburg, stands, on Oct. 20, next to bolts of Syrian fabric he sells.

Many Syrian refugees in Germany have resigned themselves to the reality that there will be no swift return to the land of their birth, where a civil war is nearing the start of its eighth year.

They are starting to build new lives in their host country, driving up demand for "Made in Syria" goods there as they seek to soothe homesickness with a precious slice of their old lives.

Products popular among the half a million Syrians, who mainly arrived over the last three years, range from nuts, sweets, and sesame paste to clothes, vertical spinning grillers used to make shawarma meat in diners, and hair removal wax.

"People want the very same things they were used to in Syria," said trader Anas Msouty, sitting in his dim underground office near Hamburg Port as workers sorted out parcels of baklawa sweets and clothes that had just arrived from Syria.

"The German market is full of similar products from Turkey, but Syrians want Syrian [goods]," added the father-of-six, who had to abandon his Islamic women's clothing factory outside Damascus when he fled the country.

Orders have grown 25-fold since Mr. Msouty set up his trading firm Sajeda three months after his arrival in Germany in early 2016. He now imports 25 tonnes of Syrian goods a month.

He is not alone in capitalizing on this trend; dozens of Syrian restaurants, stores and supermarkets have sprung up in all major German cities over the past two years, with more opening every month. In Berlin alone, at least half a dozen new Syrian eateries and as many supermarkets have opened this year.

The rise in demand for Syrian goods is contributing to a gradual revival in Syrian exports to Germany, which has taken in more Syrian refugees than any other Western nation.

Exports from Syria rose to €15.5 million ($17.9 million) in 2016 and totaled €8 million in the first five months of this year alone, according to official German data.

This is still a far cry from the pre-war level when non-oil Syrian exports to Germany totaled around €86 million (approximately $100 million) a year.

More than 5 million Syrians – almost a quarter of the pre-war population – have fled the Middle Eastern nation, according to the United Nations. It is unclear how much support rising demand for Syrian goods among refugee populations in Germany and elsewhere may be having on Syria's shattered economy. Little data is available from the war zone.

The revival in trade in Germany nonetheless appears to have coincided with a bottoming out of economic activity in Syria.

The World Bank estimates the country's gross domestic product contracted by an accumulated 61 percent in 2011-2015, but in 2016 it shrunk by only 2 percent, though it mainly puts the improvement down to a slowing in the population exodus.

Msouty, who supplies Syrian individuals and businesses in Germany, said he was proud of his contribution to recovering Syrian exports, which he said is providing much-needed income to factory owners and workers in Syria.

"We are resuscitating the Syrian economy," he said.

In Berlin, the boulevard of Sonnenallee – dubbed "Arab Street" for its abundance of Arabic shop signs – has become one of the most popular shopping destinations and hangouts for the capital's Syrian refugees.

It boasts three Syrian supermarkets, two Syrian restaurants and one Syrian sweet shop, which have all opened over the past two years.

"This is just a smell of home," said Houda Bayyad, a veiled young mother shopping at one of the supermarkets, which opened in recent weeks.

"It doesn't solve our problems like learning German and finding a job. But it makes our life here easier," said Ms. Bayyad, holding a jar of Makdous, a Syrian delicacy of baby aubergines stuffed with walnuts, garlic, and sun-dried red peppers pickled in olive oil.

Most Syrian goods come from factories in areas under government control mainly in and around Damascus but also from Aleppo. Three companies in Damascus that supply Msouty with goods declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.

The products are transported in trucks through relatively safe areas under government control to the port of Latakia in northern Syria and loaded onto container ships bound for Hamburg. Other products come by plane via Beirut.

This trade is proving indispensable for Syrians setting up businesses in Germany.

Sweet shops, and coffee and nut roasters, need specialized machines to make sweet and salty delights such as baklawa and roasted kernels. They prefer to import equipment from Syria as it is cheaper than to buy them in Germany from European or Turkish manufacturers.

Restaurateurs depend on speciality raw ingredients to recreate the flavors that Syrians crave.

L'Amira Falafel, a Syrian restaurant in Hamburg that opened in 2015, has proved so popular that it has now opened at a second location in the northern city.

"Our main goal was to make sure that everything we prepare tastes like in Syria," said Mohammad Abou Saeed, co-owner of the eateries where it is hard to find a table any time of the day.

"To do that we needed the same sesame paste, pickles, and spices we used in Syria," he added, gesturing at a waiter to bring baked bread to a couple who had just walked in.

"It makes us very happy when diners tell us our food reminds them of Syria."

This story was reported by Reuters.

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