Ali, the shopkeeper

Ali, the shopkeeper

A 22 year old from Aleppo, Ali had recently set up a shop within one of the settlements in Bekaa Valley, not far from Salam’s HQ in Taanayel. I was asked to go and visit to see how he was getting on since launch three days before.

Settlement Maallaga Aradi 064 was a 20 minute drive down the Beirut-Damascas freeway — the “free” part of the word being taken very literally by the local Lebanese drivers; their driving style summed up by translator Mohammed as he advised “Jimmee (Jim is impossible apparently) you need to drive with a ‘me first!’ attitude — you are too much British”.

Refugee “camps” in Lebanon are known locally as “settlements” at the insistence of the Lebanese government, who worry about political scarring from the ‘temporary’ Palestinian camps that continue to exist over 40 years on. The word “settlement” is intended to differentiate the Syrian displaced from the now permanent Palestinians, and to reassure disgruntled locals that the refugees’ residence in Lebanon is temporary — as soon as peace is achieved in Syria, they are expected to return. In Bekaa Valley there are hundreds of individual settlements ranging from populations as few as 30 up to as many as 1,000.

We headed in the direction of the Syrian border, through an unmanned military check point and on to the entrance of the settlement located on a farm in the foothills of the stunning Anti-Lebanon mountains that separate Lebanon from Syria. At the entrance we were greeted by Yasir, a vastly overweight man who was known as the Settlement Controller. Having relaxed his initial unwelcoming scowl, he allowed our entry and pointed us to the far end of the camp where Ali’s shop could be found.

Like all the homes in the settlement the shop is a basic, single story wooden structure rising up from a concrete floor. The difference between the shop and the other houses is that the outer covering is not the standard UNHCR branded white canvas, but instead a discarded billboard sheet advertising unisex perfume.

The varied stock on sale in the shop make it difficult to categorise. On the plywood shelves in one corner is a rainbow of different hair dyes (as Mohammad tactfully pointed out to me before almost falling over with laughter), nail varnish, perfumes and other beauty products. In another hangs a line of hijabs, ornately decorated with sequins by Ali’s wife and young cousins. To complete the eclectic collection there will be an entire section for washing powders, liquids and soaps — not available at launch thanks to an unreliable supplier. On the floor is a rug carried from his home in Syria and cushions where shoppers can sit and have tea or soft drinks. Asked if he was happy how business was going since launch, Ali beamed that so far it had been a huge success.

What makes Ali’s shop all the more remarkable is the fact that he is totally blind. One day when walking from his house in Aleppo to deliver medicine to his father he was shot in the head by a sniper.

His survival is almost as miraculous as his spirit. Rarely will you meet a man with such energy, humour and fight. Paralysed by his loss of sight he had to find a way, not only to escape the war zone, but to support his young family (as is the expectation of men in Arabic culture) and so, while all other men went out to work on local farms, he started a shop. Ali is yet another example of extraordinary human resilience in the face of near impossible adversity.

You can DONATE to Salam LADC who funded Ali’s shop via this link (https://www.youcaring.com/salamladc-769159) and the money you donate will go directly to the entrepreneurial and educational initiatives, kids entertainment and medical care that Salam runs here in Bekaa Valley where there are at least 500,000 Syrian refugees.