Growing up in Mersin, Turkey, Semira Özbaş began her career managing a furniture shop after graduating university with a degree in Sociology. However, Semira had other goals in mind for her future, namely using her studies in sociology to become an entrepreneur with her sister.
It was a passion for food that drove Hussein to make a career change from hospitality to starting his own business in Syria as a dessert chef. He quickly found success as an entrepreneur and turned one dessert shop into four. However, after the conflict in Syria began, Hussein was forced to migrate to Mersin and leave his booming businesses behind.
After migrating to Turkey, Mahmoud was determined to take on a new challenge: he bought several plots of land to grow lemon trees and began harvesting and selling lemons both domestically and regionally. When the business took off, Mahmoud started his own restaurant, but this time focused on his true passion – pizza and pastries.
Before the conflict began in Syria, Meyas Saati had established a successful home-based business in her hometown of Homs producing a traditional regional dish called ‘Makdous’, pickled and stuffed eggplants, and selling to customers within Syria and in the Arab Gulf states. However, after the Islamic State (ISIS) occupied her neighborhood four years ago, Meyas was forced to flee with her four children to Mersin, a southern port city of Turkey.
Although he enrolled in an entrepreneurship executive training course while in university, Ahmet truly built the skills he viewed as crucial for his success when he started mountain climbing as a sport. “It added a lot to my creativity and capacity when it comes to entrepreneurship…In this period I did a lot of personal development and learned how to survive with very little resources.” When deciding what to produce as an entrepreneur, Ahmet settled on the food sector because he wanted to produce something that is healthy, “there is nothing more beneficial and healthier for people than healthy food.”
Ammar’s dream project is starting a food business focused on desserts and smoothies. He even already has a name for it: PH7 or ‘Pleasure of Heaven’. Since deciding on his initial idea, Ammar has been looking to rent a small restaurant in the Fatih neighborhood of Istanbul to start his business and is looking for business partners to promote his product and fund his start-up costs.
Shaker always likes to introduce himself by highlighting his impressive academic background, as he holds a PhD in Sharia Law and a Master’s degree in Child’s Rights. Shaker has travelled extensively in Europe and Africa, worked in universities, and managed schools. “At one point, I realized that I couldn’t make a living with my academic job, so we opened a sweet shop in Syria.” The business focused on mamul, a traditional Middle Eastern pastry filled with a variety of stuffings. Shaker’s mamul had a unique twist - instead of the traditional nuts and dates, his pastries were filled with cheese.
Waad was a teacher for 14 years in Palmyra, Syria. “Palmyra is very famous for dates which are filled with other ingredients and sold to tourists.” In 2016, she fled the country and settled in Mersin, where she had siblings. She was always actively looking for opportunities to learn the Turkish language and develop her skills, which is how she came to learn of the LIFE Project.
As a creative chef in homemade desserts, Waad was initially interested in the LIFE Project to build her marketing skills.“The business pitch competition itself was a very big step for me to take; it developed my character and allowed me a chance to meet people.”
Saleh is a food entrepreneur from Deir ez-Zor, Syria. After graduating from the Technical Institute for Tourism and Hotel Sciences in Syria, he worked in Sham Palace and other hotels for twelve years. Almost four years before the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, Saleh opened his own restaurant for pizza and sweets along with all kinds of juices.
Forced to leave his home country, Saleh moved to Turkey in 2016. “I came straight to Mersin as I had friends before me settling here and their feedback in general was always positive about this city. I [then] worked in restaurants in Mersin.” As Saleh realized that the market demand in Mersin focused more on delivery services than restaurants, he transitioned to Turkish sweet shops.
Originally from Latakia, Syria, Zeinab studied fine arts and taught painting. Her father and uncle were well known Attars, people who extract natural essence from flowers and plants for health benefits. As a child, she was fascinated by how her father extracted flower essence: “We had a garden with lemon trees and we would gather the flowers of the lemon tree together to extract the essence [...] After he passed away, I carried on and started first distributing bottles of plant extracts in his honor, as he would have done if he was alive.
“The LIFE Project mentors me and gives me direction,” she explained from the LIFE Food Enterprise Center in Istanbul.
Fatma joined the inaugural cohort of entrepreneurs for four months of incubation, during which she got a crash course in food entrepreneurship and navigating the regulatory environment in Turkey.