IDP success story: Idriss the Beekeeper

Idriss at work. Photo: IOM Idriss at work. Photo: IOM

“Turning your hobby into your work is one of the best things that can happen in life,” said Mr. Idriss Najehl, a beekeeper from Abu Khanazeer village in the province of Diyala.

He carefully removed honey from the beehive and offered us a taste. “Destiny often takes strange turns and life can be unpredictable,” he said. “I never would’ve thought that in just a few years I would go from being a taxi driver to a professional honey producer.”

We listened carefully, while keeping a safe distance from the bees.

“I have to thank my brother for this change in profession,” he continued with a smile on his face. “Or maybe it would be more appropriate to thank his kidnappers. Or should I thank IOM instead?”

Noticing that we were confused with this statement, Idriss added, “It’s a long story. Let me explain.”

Idriss told us that, back in 2006, his family began receiving threats from Al Qaeda. “I don’t know why they targeted us. My family wasn’t involved in politics, and we didn’t have any enemies,” he said. So the family went about their business and tried to ignore the threats.

But over time, the situation in Diyala worsened, and many of Idriss’ friends and family members began to disappear or were killed. Terrorists were frequently demanding bribes for protection, and individuals with decent sources of income, in particular, became targets of intimidation and extortion. Idriss’ older brother, Kussai, was working for an oil company at the time, and frequently received threats and demands for protection money from Al Qaeda.

Kussai repeatedly refused to pay the bribes until one Monday in November 2006, when he no longer had a choice. That day, he did not return home from work. Idriss, his younger brother, received a chilling phone call in the evening. “If you don’t bring us 30 million Iraqi Dinars (25,000 USD) by Wednesday,” the voice on the other end of the line threatened, “we will send your big brother back in pieces.”

“I was frightened,” Idriss remembered.  “And approaching the police was not an option. At the time they were powerless, and some even corrupt. It was just too risky,” he explained to us. “But I had to do everything I could to save my big brother.”

Idriss and his younger brother Muhaned started collecting the ransom money that night. “We had about 2,000 in cash, and we borrowed another 4,000 from friends and family, but it was nowhere near enough,” he stated. “We were desperate and we knew our kidnappers weren’t joking. So we decided to sell the family gold. We only had two days, there was no time for anything else…”

In Iraq, family gold is often regarded as ‘Zina and Khazina,’ which means that it is there for adornment, but it is also there to save you during difficult times.

Embracing ‘Zina and Khazina,’ Idriss and Muhaned called their wives and asked them to gather all of the jewellery, coins, and antiques they had collected for generations. Gathering everything, including the earrings, necklaces, and rings from their wives’ fingers, the brothers sold it all the next morning.

“I think the jewellery trader knew we were in a panic, though, and he didn’t give us more than 50 percent of its real value,” Idriss stated. “So I had no other choice, and I sold my taxi the next day too. Sure, it meant losing my job, my investment, and the only way I had to support my family... But there was nothing else I could do.”

With the sale of the taxi, Idriss finally had enough money to free his brother, and Kussai was let go the following morning. “He was beaten up and had bruises all over his body, but he was alive,” Idriss said, still obviously uncomfortable discussing the situation. “And then the three of us, along with our wives and kids, left our houses the next morning and headed to Salahuddin.” He would not go into any further details on how he dealt with his brother’s kidnappers.

“We did not have a choice because we knew the terrorists would come back again,” Idriss said. “And the next day we found ourselves totally destitute, in a new city, without money or jobs.”

Sadly, it was a story that has been told in Iraq many times before.

For the next two years, Idriss’ family stayed with relatives. “This was the hardest period of my life. My brothers and I lived from charity, and if we were lucky enough, we would get an odd job or two to make a little cash. Every morning we would go to the city market place hoping somebody would hire us for a day. Most of the time we were unsuccessful, though. We didn’t even have enough money to buy food.”

By the end of 2008, the brothers decided to go back to their village. Idriss explained that they were hoping that after two years the terrorists would have forgotten about them. They had also heard that the situation in Diyala had improved, although it was still far from being a safe place.

“We were willing to take the risk because life in exile was extremely difficult for us,” he stated.

Luckily, their friends had looked after their property while the family was away. They also had some land and were able to begin growing enough food for their own needs. “Although life had improved compared to the past two years in Salahuddin, it was still very hard for us. All three of us brothers were out of work,” Idriss told us. “My youngest brother, Muhaned, was unemployed before the move, and was still unable to find a job. As for Kussai, even if he wanted to go back to his old job, he was still too afraid to travel to the city every day. And for me, well, I didn’t have my taxi anymore.”

By mid-2010, the security situation in Iraq improved and Kussai was finally able to find employment again. An accountant by trade, he was hired by a local company to do their books. He was still afraid to move around the city, however, and had to be accompanied by either Idriss or Muhaned on his way to and from work every day.

In early 2011, Idriss was selected to receive an in-kind grant (IKG) by IOM’s Programme for Human Security and Stabilization. Because he had experience with beekeeping and already owned two beehive boxes for personal production, Idriss was given an IKG to start a honey production business. The IKG contained ten beehive boxes, three honey separators, a bee pump, protective clothing, pesticides, and insecticides.

IOM also provided Idriss with a three-day training and general orientation on beekeeping. “It was very useful,” he stated. “Especially the part on how to use pesticides and insecticides to protect bees. I had heard of this but never done it before; IOM’s expert teachers taught me a lot.”

Within a year’s time, Idriss has been able to start and run a profitable honey business. Using eucalyptus, orange, and lemon blossoms, his bees produce enough honey to bring in about 230 USD per month. Each kilo of honey sells for about 28 USD, and he cannot produce enough to meet demand. “I recently purchased three more beehive boxes, and now have twelve colonies, up from nine!”

After years of struggle and destitution, the family is almost back on track. Idriss and Kussai are also currently both saving to help their youngest brother, Muhaned, start a fish farming business.

“To be honest, I am much happier as a bee farmer than as a taxi driver,” Idriss stated. “No offense, but I often prefer the company of bees. They are much less harmful than humans during hard times...”

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