Kurds and others in northern Iraq are very serious about their honey. Imported mass-market honey sells in the grocery stores here for about $10 a kilogram. But people with means will happily pay $50 a kilogram for the best of the locally produced natural variety. They will, moreover, beat a path to the doors of the village beekeepers to find and buy the real stuff—pure, organic, Kurdish honey.
And thereby hangs the tale of a successful income generation strategy for women working to rebuild lives shattered by war and violence.
Deb and I recently visited some of the participants in a beekeeping project supported by MCC and implemented by our partner, the Zahko Small Villages Project. We met the head of ZSVP, Dr. Abid Hassan, and ZSVP’s project monitor, Mr. Hashim, in Dohuk and set out for the villages of Beban, Ain Baqara, and Karenjik in the Ninevah plain between Dohuk and Mosul.
In the Yezidi village of Beban we met our first woman participant, Aasimah (not her real name), whose husband was kidnapped in Baghdad in 2006. The family sold goods from the camera shop they owned to raise the $50,000 ransom the kidnappers demanded. They paid the ransom but to no avail. The kidnappers killed Aasimah’s husband and Aasimah fled Baghdad with her four children to live in the safety of Beban, her family village.
Aasimah reported that she had already sold 4 kg. of honey for $50 a kg., although her five hives had been working for only three months. Aasimah, like the 25 other displaced female heads of household participating in the ZSVP project, can expect to earn some $2,000 a year in the first years of the project and could earn much more as the bees swarm and populate new hives. (On our visit we met one man who had been the beneficiary of an earlier ZSVP beekeeping project. He received five beehives in 2009. He now maintains fifty hives and sells bees as well as honey to customers in the area.)
We visited two other widows in Beban whom ZSVP had chosen in consultation with village leaders to take part in the project, including one whose husband was murdered in nearby Mosul at the height of the sectarian violence, most likely simply because he was a Yazidi.
In stops in two Christian villages, Ain Baqara, and Karanjik, we heard similar stories. One woman’s husband was killed in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. She continued living in Baghdad until 2005, when she fled under fire after her home was looted and the neighborhood church burned. Another widow left Mosul with her children to escape the sectarian and criminal violence that still afflicts the city.
We talked to the village leader, or mukhtar, in Ain Baqara who told us that the village consisted of only nine houses in 2003 when the U.S.-led war began. Now twenty-three families, 81 people, live in Ain Baqara, where they have come from Mosul, Baghdad, Kirkuk and other areas affected by continuing violence.
The Kurdish Regional Government has welcomed internally displaced Christians. In Ain Baqara and Karanjik we saw some of the little concrete houses that the KRG has built and provided free for many who have fled to the safety of the northern villages.
With the security that prevails in the Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq, with help from the government and from organizations like the Zakho Small Villages Project, people who have been displaced and suffered grievous losses from war and violence are regrouping and rebuilding, demonstrating remarkable resilience in adversity. It is a privilege to accompany them.