Meet Ali Alzein, the Syrian beekeeper using his job to help bees and refugees

Syrian beekeeper helping bees + refugees
6 min read
22 March, 2022
The beekeeping profession has a long history in the Arab world, practised in Egypt as far back as 5,000 years ago. For Syrian refugee Ali Alzein, sustainable methods of beekeeping have also provided a means to help fellow refugees as well as bees.

“It’s difficult not to hear the buzz,” says a smiling Ali Alzein, founder of beekeeping refugee support organisation Bees and Refugees, standing amidst a harmonious hum in the back garden of his London flat.

Three beehives stand behind him, a busy flock of pollinators venturing between their hives and the garden’s plants. Alzein’s golden retriever and cat roam the garden, the brave tortoiseshell not shying away from the surrounding bees but the retriever aware of the potential danger, having “learned his lesson” as a puppy.

As Alzein apologises to his bees for bothering them, it is evident that all 50,000 are a central part of his life.

“It’s something I seek and I need nowadays – I got so used to having them around,” he says.

"Ali Alzein founded Bees and Refugees in February 2020 as a way of bringing refugees together and saving the endangered native black bee, a species threatened by extinction"

Alzein, now 36, left his home in Damascus, Syria, in 2012 due to ongoing conflict and oppression under the current dictatorial President Bashar al-Assad, which has seen over 13 million Syrians displaced since 2011. 

“Before the Syrian revolution in 2011, I honestly was a completely different person,” Alzein says. “Seeing people oppressed and killed on a daily basis changed who I am profoundly.”

Having worked in the fashion industry with his family back home, Alzein started a job in London’s luxury department store, Harrods, while volunteering at refugee camps in Europe in his spare time.

Ali Alzein, Syrian beekeeper
Ali has become a self-taught expert on sustainable methods of beekeeping [credit: Olly Burn]

But struggling with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] from his experiences, the contrast between his work, volunteering and news from Syria proved too much to process.

“It pushed me to the extreme,” he says. “It was like two sides. I didn’t feel like I belonged to Harrods and those people who spend millions on things that [don’t] matter.”

Ali Alzein, Syrian beekeeper
Ali working at his beehive in the garden of his London flat [credit: Olly Burn]

Alzein had learned basic beekeeping from his grandfather as a child, so decided to leave Harrods and get his own beehive, becoming a self-taught expert on sustainable, organic bee-farming.

“I realised how therapeutic [beekeeping] is, especially to someone who’s struggling, like me,” he says. Finding that helping bees helped him deal with his mental health, Alzein wanted to share his discovery with other refugees struggling to settle in.

“Bee’s [are] under attack, they’re in danger, especially the native black bees,” he says. “Refugees are also under attack.”

Alzein founded Bees and Refugees in February 2020 as a way of bringing refugees together and saving the endangered native black bee, a species threatened by extinction. He started with his own small back garden hive before branching out to community spaces, schools and green spaces – offering beekeeping workshops to local refugees.

Alzein describes a case in which two Syrian men, who had been beekeepers prior to the conflict in Syria, were reunited with bees through the organisation, having lost touch with the craft for almost 10 years.  

“This beautiful connection that they have with the bees, […] luckily we were able to help them get that feeling back,” he says. 

Not wanting to be linked to commercial honey production, he adopts sustainable beekeeping practices, only taking from the bees when they can “afford to lose a little bit”.

"Whether it's for refugees, for Syrians, for [Black Lives Matter], or for the Venezuelans – it doesn't really matter... We realise how all these oppressors are interconnected"

His love for nature is clear. Grinning, he points out wild mushrooms sprouting in his garden. “Unfortunately not edible,” he laughs. Although it is winter, the garden is flourishing with diverse plants, no doubt due to the help of his personal “army of pollinators”.

Gesturing toward a hedgerow creeping across his garden, he proudly exclaims: “We never had berries from the hedges and this year we were eating berries all summer. Huge, tasty, very delicious berries.”

This is something Alzein would like to see elsewhere, actively encouraging councils to adopt sustainable practices – whether through growing plants beneficial to bees or limiting trimming trees whilst they are flowering. 

Ali Alzein, Syrian beekeeper
Donning a beekeeping suit, Ali tends to his bees [credit: Olly Burn]

He believes he has developed a unique connection with his bees, developed through the mutually-beneficial relationship.

“From my end, I do have an emotional connection with them,” he says. He isn’t sure but would like to believe they feel the same. “Hopefully I’m not going to get stung now,” he laughs, disclosing that he has learned to read his bee’s “energies”.

“You understand if they’re angry, if they’re aggressive or if they’re in a good mood,” he says, noting that, when agitated, they will bump his head to warn him away. Alzein no doubt respects this and has not been stung since last summer. “I kind of miss it,” he beams. “I feel like something is missing.” 

Accustomed to having guests, Alzein’s flat is nicknamed ‘Uchi’ [or عُشّي], Arabic for “my nest”. 

Ali Alzein, Syrian beekeeper
Ali pictured here wearing the flag of the Free Syrian Republic at a protest against Bashar Al-Assad's Syrian regime [credit: Ali Alzein]

“It’s become a bubble, a hub for progressive [Arab] activists,” he says. “We sit down and have discussions, talk about back home and how we can help.”  

Activism posters on his walls represent his desire for change, having witnessed corrupt politicians exploit their power. “Seeing things like that definitely woke me up,” he says.

He uses his social media platform to raise awareness of issues across the world; from Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime in Syria to human rights atrocities against Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

But this isn’t limited to social media. Having been involved in the Syrian revolution of 2011 – where he was exposed to pervasive injustice – he and his fellow activists attend protests to stand in solidarity with anyone experiencing oppression elsewhere.

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Whether it's for refugees, for Syrians, for [Black Lives Matter], or for the Venezuelans– it doesn't really matter,” he says. “We realise how all these oppressors are interconnected.”

Keen to get away from fast-paced London and toward sustainable living, Alzein dreams of settling in a community hub elsewhere, growing his own food accompanied by his pets and “lots of other animals”. He also hopes to take his project to camps across Europe and the Middle East to give hope to struggling refugees.  

But for now, he is continuing to expand his beekeeping community, with hopes of sustaining the organisation without donations and grants so he can continue supporting those who need it most.

“[Bees] strive to work together for the good of the whole colony,” he says. “There are lessons to learn from them.”

Acacia Redding is a multimedia journalist, working as a Video Production Assistant for The Guardian. She has appeared in @HUCKmagazine@trf_stories and others. 

Follow her on Twitter: @acaciaredding