Beyond the Jar Part 4:
The Radical Beekeeper
We sat down with Syrian beekeeper, activist and founder of Bees & Refugees, Ali Alzein, to talk about his journey from Syria to his life in London, and his mission to promote beekeeping as a gateway to environmental sustainability, a community-building activity, and therapeutic practice.
Tell us about yourself?
My name is Ali, I’m a beekeeper and an activist from Syria. I’ve been living in London on and off since 2009. I was working in the fashion industry until I discovered the therapeutic element of keeping bees. I fell in love with the beekeeping world and ended up quitting my job in 2019 and founding Bees & Refugees.
What made you become an activist?
I only grew up hearing that we should never speak out, you should never say anything because the walls have ears and you could disappear. I never knew how bad it was until I was arrested when I was 17. That was the first time I experienced Syrian prisons and got to see what our country was actually like. In February 2011 I was visiting Damascus from London when the Syrian Revolution started, I was there by coincidence. People took to the streets and I saw how the police and the army reacted, how they started shooting and beating people on the street literally right in front of me. Once you’ve seen the truth it’s hard to unsee it and we cannot just stand on the side. I started documenting what was happening and sending videos to platforms like Al Jazeera because the internet was getting cut and there was no way to show people what was happening in Syria. We were just filming, that’s how I started as an activist.
When did you leave Syria?
Throughout 2011 the Syrian Revolution was becoming bigger and bigger, more people were dying every day. I wanted to be part of change. In 2012 we started organising protests in Damascus, which was just crazy. Back then it was really dangerous to go out and express your opinion in Damascus especially because it was the stronghold of the Syrian government. During this year I was arrested three times, but I was able to get out of prison every time because it’s a corrupt regime so you bribe your way out if you can. We were also organising humanitarian campaigns and using our family’s factory in Damascus to store donations. When the government found out they burned down our factory and they destroyed our house. I think that was at the end of 2012, around November. After that, we left right away, me, my mum and my sister – my dad was already outside of Syria – and never went back.
How did you get into beekeeping?
The whole thing started completely by coincidence. We were thinking about getting a cat, and I said let’s get something more useful like bees or chickens. My grandfather had a beautiful farm and used to keep bees so the next day I ordered a bee hive to my house. Before the hive arrived I was obsessively researching beekeeping, how people kept bees in the region and natural beekeeping methods. I fell in love with the subject and I was reading and talking to people who have been keeping bees for 30 or 40 years, or who are doing PhDs on bees. But the bees themselves are the best teachers – you just need to be with them.
What made you start Bees & Refugees?
I was making good money in London’s luxury fashion industry, it meant I was able to support my family but I hated the job. I got into the habit of having my breakfast next to the bees and it was so magical and so comfortable to be around them. It was helping me a lot and I thought it would help a lot of people going through the same thing. The so-called refugee crisis and Fortress Europe was happening at the same time. Bees were under attack and refugees were under attack. So, I started putting the two together, and talking about it to my friends. They told me it would be hard, but I wanted to give it a go. In 2019 my family moved to the US and opened a restaurant, and I was able to quit my job and start Bees & Refugees.
What methods of beekeeping do you practise?
We prioritise the wellbeing of the bees and obviously the environment as well. This includes ensuring that the bees are not harmed and the hives are not disturbed unless there is a reason for doing so. It is also important to make sure that beehives are placed in areas where the bees have diverse plants and flowers. Beekeepers should avoid the use of any harmful chemicals inside the hive so we avoid using any medicines or antibiotics, we actually use the same treatment our grandparents used to use in Syria and the surrounding region for which the main ingredient is thyme oil. In Britain, new beekeepers are taught that they can harvest half of their honey and they can compensate the bees by feeding them sugar water and this is one of the practices that we avoid. We don’t feed the bees unless they are going to starve if we don’t. And we never even consider taking any honey unless the bees can afford to share some. We treat the bees in an ethical way and we have this relationship where we give and we don’t take more than we gave.
Can beekeeping build community spirit?
I think personally beekeeping has allowed me to meet so many people and make so many strong connections with people. The beekeeping community is a very kind community, for some reason most of the beekeepers I’ve met were always very kind people, very generous, very modest and in touch with nature. I think the reason why is the more people learn about bees and how they work and how they function, the more inspired we are as humans. When you see insects striving to work together, support each other and work as one for the good of the whole colony, that’s very inspiring. Since we started this project we’ve been able to build bridges between communities, and we’ve had at least 200 volunteers on and off. For people who don’t speak the English language very fluently, when they were learning about the bees or working with them they didn’t feel that pressure to express anything, they just had to be there and just be in the moment and I think that helped many feel less anxiety or less stress. Especially that when we started working it was during the first lockdown. Initially the idea was to use beekeeping to support only refugees and asylum seekers but when the lockdown hit we realised that so many people are struggling with their mental health, so we were able to offer many workshops to individuals from the local community and refugees at the same time, and those workshops were safe spaces for everyone. I think people felt that the barrier was eliminated between the two communities. They both felt that they are doing something meaningful. I think it allowed both communities to kind of connect and realise that we are more similar than we are different from each other.
What can consumers do to act more responsibly?
I think consumers in general need to always look at what the label says because most of the honey that’s in the market is actually produced by big companies and they almost never know what’s in the honeypot. On the label usually it would say a ‘blend of honeys’ which means that it had to be heated in order to blend it (once the honey is heated it loses most of its benefits) and any syrup could be added to it. It might come as a surprise but there are local beekeepers in almost every postcode or every neighbourhood so I’d say just Google who your local beekeeper is and then if you’re buying honey from your local beekeeper at least you know the person and you’ll get to ask them questions like if they feed their bees, if they give any sort of medication to the bees and then also you’ll be supporting someone who’s in your local area.
How can people support you?
If anyone would like to volunteer with us, most of the work we do is actually done by the amazing network of volunteers that support our projects and believe in our goals and share our values, so that’s one thing. We always have fundraising events and if anyone would like to join any of our events they can just follow us on our social media platforms and keep up with our news. We also like to use our platforms to advocate for refugees and engage with our local community.
Facebook: Bees & Refugees