Iraq's demand for Hello Kitty keeps one Aleppo factory open as others close doors

Aleppo was once the economic heart of Syria, with factories ringing the city. But war destruction and a lack of electricity and materials has caused most of them to shut down. 

Aleppo Media Center/AP
Citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, show buildings damaged during battles between the rebels and the Syrian government forces, in the Salaheddine neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Monday May 20, 2013.

In opposition-controlled Aleppo, once the economic heart of Syria, few businesses have survived the war, which has reduced entire neighborhoods to rubble amid fighting, scud missile attacks, airstrikes, and artillery bombardment.

Most of the factories here that survived are unable to resume operations because they lack enough electricity to run the machines, the supplies to make their goods are no longer available or too expensive, or the owners don’t want to risk reinvesting when everything could be destroyed again without warning.

And yet in the middle of all this destruction, at least one factory survives. On the lower level of a multi-story building, young men and some children work diligently at embroidering baby blankets with images of Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty. The survival of an off-brand embroidery factory manufacturing knockoff images of famous cartoon characters is both a testament to the randomness of war and a small ray of hope that Aleppo’s economy, now as ruined as the city itself, might be able to rebuild.

The battle between government forces and the opposition remains undecided in Aleppo, with government forces controlling about a third of the city, according to rebel estimates.

The owner of the embroidery factory lives in the area still under government control, so he’s entrusted his senior foreman, Abu Abdu with running the entire factory. The two men still communicate by phone during the brief moments when Aleppo has cell service.

When fighting broke out in Aleppo last summer, the factory closed for about two months, but then reopened. Since then the factory has survived with only a couple minor scares.

“This building has been hit with two mortar rounds, but they didn’t damage the factory,” says Mr. Abdu. “The lights went out and our machines stopped, but that was it.”

To keep the factory up and running, they’ve had to switch to all generator power and fire half the staff. Before the war, the factory ran 24 hours a day, divided into two shifts. Now it’s just one daytime crew.

Above all else, the factory has been kept afloat because the majority of its clients are Iraqi. They have continued to buy, and the route between the two countries has stayed open.

“It would be hard if I had only Syrian clients. I do have some in Homs and Damascus, but it’s hard to communicate and they buy about 50 percent less than they did before the revolution started,” says Abdu.

A handful of other factories and workshops have managed to reopen throughout Aleppo, but businesses like Abdu’s remain a rare exception. Stories like Abu Aysa’s are much more common. 

Before the revolution started, he ran a successful kitchen utensil factory that earned about $2 million in annual profits and employed 20 people – or supported 20 families, as Mr. Aysa likes to say. In the first days of clashes, government jets bombed all the factories in his area. Aysa says he was lucky – he'd closed the factory shortly before fighting broke out, so none of his employees were there at the time, and his factory was only partially damaged. About a dozen of his neighbors’ plants were completely destroyed.

Although his factory has not been reopened, he still tried to help a number of his employees, giving them money from time to time – while he still had it. Now he’s spent his entire savings and lives of capital meant for his factory. 

“I will not try to reopen my factory until this war finishes, if I am still alive by then,” he says.

Several of Aysa’s steel suppliers have agreed to lend him the money necessary to rebuild once there is enough security to resume work. Still, with the Syrian pound having lost more than 30 percent of its value against the dollar since the revolution began, he says it will be hard to afford the material he needs from international suppliers.

“Even if I wanted to work right now, I couldn’t because the Syrian pound has fallen so much and other currencies have gotten stronger,” he says.

For those who’ve managed to continue working in some capacity, the war has significantly stunted the development of their businesses. Jets severely damaged Abu Ahmad’s two bird cage-making factories, but he managed to salvage enough equipment to continue making cages in his home.

Given the limitations of his at-home factory, production has dropped from about 1,000 bird cages per day to just 150. He’s also had to start using lower quality materials and raise prices, which makes him worry that he may lose his remaining clients in Libya and Iraq. If fighting were to end tomorrow, it would take him at least five years, but probably longer, to rebuild his business, he says.

“When the war ends, I can’t afford to restore all my factories. I can only restore part of it and rebuild the rest gradually,” he says. “Before the revolution I wanted to make a new production line and push into European markets.  Now I’m not going to make it into any new markets.”

At the embroidery factory, machines are still pumping out dozens of Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty blankets simultaneously, 12 hours a day, but Abdu says it’s still a struggle to keep the generators running, find spare parts for the machines, and buy thread for the embroidery work.

But fighting between government and opposition forces in Aleppo is less fierce than it has been for months, so he remains guardedly optimistic. “Now it is better than last summer and I hope it will continue to get better," he says.

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