A Syrian academic who fled the violence in his homeland has set up a beekeeping project in West Yorkshire and, as Chris Bond discovered, it is thriving.
When Dr Ryad Alsous arrived in this country five years ago he only had two items with him apart from the clothes on his back – a smart jacket for special occasions and a vintage bee smoker.
The latter was his prized possession which he’d brought with him from his home in Syria and today he’s clutching it as he inspects the wooden hives that he helped build.
We’re a stone’s throw from Standedge Tunnel on the edge of Marsden, in the lush South Pennines countryside, which turns out to be an ideal environment for bees.
Back in his homeland Dr Alsous was a respected academic at the University of Damascus where students knew him as ‘the professor of bees’.
He had spent years researching the chemical properties of honey and was about to embark on another groundbreaking project when civil war broke out in 2011.
He fled to the UK two years later and, after approaching the Canal and River Trust, which agreed to give him a plot of land close to the Standedge Tunnel visitor centre, he launched the Buzz Project last September.
The project, which is being managed by Sanctuary Kirklees with help from the Trust, among others, aims to help refugees and the long-term unemployed to find a sense of purpose through bee-keeping.
And it appears to be working. Less than 12 months on and the first batch of honey from the hives is about to go on sale.
Kim Strickson, who helps manage the project and is also one of the volunteers, says the hives have become a popular local talking point. “We get dog walkers coming by and people out for a stroll and everyone’s been really friendly and supportive,” she says. “There’s a mixture of volunteers and they’ve helped make the hives from bits of recycled wood. Ryad has been teaching them about beekeeping and there’s been times when he’s needed help with translating things and one of the nice things about the project is we say ‘we’re all teachers and we’re all learners’.”
During the winter the hives were stored in the nearby orchard of a Polish man who came to Britain at the end of the Second World War. “He escaped the horrors of Communism and I think there’s something lovely about a Polish refugee helping a Syrian beekeeper,” says Kim.
There are now dozens of volunteers involved, even if not all of them are regulars. “They come from all walks of life. We’ve got former teachers helping out, we’ve got refugees and other people who’ve been in this country a long time but perhaps don’t feel part of a wider community. So we’ve had people from places like Morocco, Yemen and Sudan.”
She says it’s already had a positive impact. “In terms of wellbeing people get a lot out of it and there’s a social side to it because they get to meet other people.”
And there’s a growing sense of anticipation about sampling the honey. “Everyone’s been asking about the honey and Ryad’s happy with it. He’s amazing because he can tell by the colour what the bees have been foraging,” she says. “We’ll be lucky if we have 60 jars but Ryad’s confident we’ll get another batch before the summer’s over.”
Today, Dr Alsous is busy checking on the hives with one of the project’s volunteers, Hicham Toureuh, from Morocco.
He is as meticulous as he is knowledgeable about his subject. “I’ve spent 40 years of my life with bees which is more time than I have spent with my family,” he says, warmly.
He found an almost instant emotional connection with bees when he started studying them. “After my first lesson I dreamt of becoming a beekeeper because for me the bee society is the perfect society.”
This was the moment, he says, that he decided he wanted to become a beekeeper and with the help of a friend bought two hives to get started.
“We learned from our mistakes and our project quickly grew and it reached 500 hives,” he says. “At university me and my colleagues established two beekeeping associations. When we started there were 5,000 beekeepers in Syria, when we left we had 25,000 and 700,000 hives.”
Dr Alsous spent years researching the chemical properties of honey and even established a factory dedicated to exploring this further.
However, his life, along with countless others, was turned on its head when Syria became engulfed in violence. His hives were among the many casualties of the conflict and, as the fighting escalated, his own life was threatened. “They wanted to kill scientific people and three times my car was bombed.” On the last occasion, he decided the time had come to leave.
One of his daughters, Razan, had already fled the chaos of home. She had arrived in Huddersfield with her husband and three children in 2012 and it was she who encouraged her parents to follow.
By the time the couple landed in England, Razan was just setting up the Yorkshire Dama Cheese company, which has since won a host of awards. It wasn’t long before Dr Alsous, who now lives in Huddersfield, wanted to return to his bees and give something back to the country that helped him in his hour of need.
He put out a call on Facebook to see if any beekeepers had some work going. “I was thinking I might have to try another route when a lady from Manchester got in touch and offered me one of her hives,” he says.
He still has this original hive and is proud to have helped what he calls “the English bees”. “Some of the herbs and plants found on the surrounding moorlands, such as heather, clover and hawthorns, are known to have strong medical qualities, as such we believe that some of those qualities will be passed on to the honey that the bees are producing,” he adds.
Dr Alsous feels blessed that his hobby is also his career and, listening to him talk, his passion is infectious. “In bee society they have soldiers, they have workers and they have royalty. We can learn from bees. They are our teachers, we don’t teach them. I am still learning from bees,” he says.
“I would encourage every person to become a beekeeper and produce their own honey it helps the environment and it helps society because without bees there would eventually be no life.”