Beekeeper of Damascus: Refugee finds peace in UK and plans to protect hives in UAE heat

Ali Alzein embraced apiculture to improve his mental health after fleeing to London to escape the trauma of civil war

Meet the Syrian activist using beekeeping to heal diaspora communities

Meet the Syrian activist using beekeeping to heal diaspora communities
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For Ali Alzein, the rhythmic buzzing of his colony of bees induces a state of calm, similar to the effects of a cat’s purr.

The Syrian refugee, for whom beekeeping is something of a family tradition, found it worked "like magic” for his mental health after arriving in London and he wanted to share the positive effects with others who had experienced trauma, as he had.

“I was surprised at how calm I was feeling around bees and that’s where I realised this could help many people who went through similar experiences,” the self-taught beekeeper told The National.

He was already familiar with beekeeping from his days in Syria, where his grandfather and sisters owned land outside Damascus.

“I was always an admirer of nature and when I moved to London I was struggling with my mental health,” said Mr Alzein, whose cousin Ryad Alsous inspired the story for the novel The Beekeeper of Aleppo.

There are similarities in their journeys. Mr Alsous was also forced to flee Syria when the civil war broke out, leaving his research into bees behind him before founding the Buzz Project in the northern Yorkshire village of Marsden, near Huddersfield, which aims to help refugees and local people.

'A magic effect'

“I was speaking to my grandfather and he said 'why don’t you grow your own food in your garden and raise bees and that will make you feel a bit more connected and grounded',” Mr Alzein said.

“When I started keeping bees, I was really struggling with my mental health and the bees had a magic effect on me.

“I was surprised at how calm I felt around bees and that’s when I realised this could help many people who went through similar experiences.”

He said raising bees helps one remain grounded and disconnected from any previous trauma.

“Panic attacks can be triggered by a memory, a smell or an experience,” he said. "When you are around the bees, nothing can trigger a panic attack because you are in the present. You are focused on their hum and the sound. It’s just so calming to be around them."

Bees and Refugees

He quit his job in the luxury fashion industry in 2020 and founded Bees and Refugees, a charity based on a farm in Otford, Kent, which works with fellow refugees and others who are struggling with mental health issues.

His charity at first aimed to help refugees specifically. But then the pandemic came and many more people started struggling with their mental health, he said.

Bees and Refugees now works with people of all ages, including school pupils, senior citizens and some with alcohol issues. But refugees are still a strong focus. Mr Alzein estimates the charity has worked with 300 migrants since it was founded.

Escape to London

Mr Alzein came to London in 2010 but moved back to Syria during the uprising only to later flee the country. He returned to London in 2014, applied for asylum and there he stayed.

Unlike many who claim asylum in the UK, Mr Alzein was lucky to be able to fly in rather than travel on a small boat, because he had a visa having previously lived there.

But his experiences in Syria were traumatising, leaving a lasting effect on his mental health.

He told The National: "The Syrian army besieged two cities at the beginning of the revolution [in 2011], so with a group of activists we used to smuggle food and medicine to civilians in the city of Homs.

"We also planned a lot of peaceful protests in Damascus, so because of that I was arrested three times, tortured and beaten up.

"The government burnt down our family business and we lost our home when the Syrian army launched a full attack on our neighbourhood in the Damascus suburb of Barze."

Protecting bees in the UAE

Mr Alzein is now looking to the future. He recently opened an extension at his farm, converting what was a Second World War bomb shelter into a carpentry area and community space.

“We can use it to build our own hives and build insect hotels,” he said.

He is also working on the design for a special hive to protect bees from the heat of the sweltering UAE summers.

Some producers bring in bees from countries such as Egypt for the short honey season before the temperatures rise, letting them die when the heat increases.

It is a practice Emirati companies such as OneHive have sought to prevent, offering a buyback programme to save the bees that would otherwise have been left to perish.

But Mr Alzein is working on a hive that offers more protection for bees that produce honey, then die.

“We have been developing a concept for a beehive that offers much more protection against the weather for bees that live in an environment like the UAE,” he told The National.

“We are trying to develop the beehive exterior so it looks like one of these amazing towers that are in Dubai and we are starting to register a company there and establish workshops with schools, community centres and libraries.”

He said there is some difficulty in getting the project off the ground due to the expense of setting up a company. Finding a suitable piece of land is also a challenge.

“But we are working on the idea and hopefully we will branch out to the UAE by next summer.”

In the meantime, he can rely on his London bees to keep him grounded.

Updated: October 12, 2023, 1:44 PM