THE STORY OF SHAHNAZ
BARDARASH REFUGEE CAMP, Iraq - Shahnaz Abdulrazaq Hussein carefully kneads the dough for maamoul, a spiced cookie filled with dates and pistachios. She shapes the biscuits, marks the tops with a design, cuts them, and places them on a tray that she then slides into an oven. She’s working in a small shop, a metal frame covered in canvas on the main road into Bardarash refugee camp in northern Iraq.
Her bakery is a simple affair - a worktable and a gas-powered oven - but it’s a life-changer for her and her children. Shahnaz and her seven children are refugees from Syria. The bakery, opened with help from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), provides some financial security for the family and brings a taste of Syria to the nearly 14,000 people living in Bardarash camp.
In 2018, when bombardments started to come too close to their home in north-eastern Syria, Shahnaz and her husband decided they needed to bring their children somewhere safer.
Shahnaz’s husband was ill, however, and the family didn’t have enough money to bring everyone across the border into the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq. They had to make the difficult decision for Shahnaz to take the children and make the difficult trip alone. The youngest was just 2 months old at the time.
“I told the kids not to cry, telling them we are going to a good place. I did my best to comfort them,” Shahnaz recalls of the journey.
In Iraq they were brought to Bardarash camp. The children had a hard time adjusting to life in the camp. It was very hot. Shahnaz remembered one day her small son was very curious about something he saw crawling on the ground and wanted to touch it. Fortunately, someone realized it was a scorpion he was chasing after before he got too close.
Shahnaz’ eldest son, Zakariah stepped up to take care of his family. He was just 11 years old, but he went to work. “I’m so proud of him,” said Shahnaz. “Since we came here, he has worked - selling tea, coffee, bread. Anything he can find to do, he does.”
Zakariah made enough money for the family to live on, but the work has kept him out of school and Shahnaz wants to see him go back to class.
In her hometown of Qamishli, Shahnaz had worked in a bakery, making sweet treats, and was sure she could do the same in the camp. “I thought the women in the camp would love this because it’s something they can’t do themselves,” she said.
So, she started a small business out of her tent, converting a barrel into an oven of sorts. She also asked the camp management for help setting up a bakery. The management submitted her name to UNIDO who enrolled her in an entrepreneurial training course funded by the Austrian Government.
In the 15-day course, she learned how to develop a business idea, make market assessments, and create a budget. “I can make many types of pastry, but now I know how to assess what is in high demand and what makes the most money,” Shahnaz said, putting the training she received into practice.
After the course, UNIDO gave her an oven, some bakery equipment like a mixer and scales, and baking ingredients. “Now, I’m working to feed my children,” she said. The UNIDO project aims to support establish and/or scale businesses to provide improved employment and livelihood opportunities for the refugees and host communities.
From the oven, she pulls out a tray of golden-brown cookies. A sweet and spicy aroma is picked up by the breeze and carried down the road, drawing passers-by into the bakery.
The maamoul are a special Eid al-Fitr order for Shaha Deif Maou who has dietary restrictions. Last year, Shaha said she bought supplies and baked treats at home for her family’s celebration of the holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, but it was a lot of work and expensive. This year, she’s happy with the new bakery.
“It’s good. Everything is available here in the camp. Even the very poor can shop here,” she said.
Shahnaz packages up the order and Zakariah makes change for Shaha.
Shahnaz bakes a variety of Syrian specialties, including maamoul, baklava, and her personal favourites: laham bajine (a thin Syrian pizza) and halawet jibna (a sweet cheese pastry). She received the oven just two weeks earlier and business has been very good. She sells 40 to 50 kilograms of baked goods daily.
She first started baking as a child, taught by her mother. When she worked at the bakery in Qamishli, she learned how to bake to a professional standard. And now, with the help of UNIDO, she has built her skills into a viable business.
“Everything I make is from Syrian traditions and culture,” she said. All people living in Bardarash camp are Syrian and Shahnaz is giving them a taste of home. “They are very happy with what I bake because they know the taste… We love our traditional foods and flavours.”