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September 10, 2020

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Syrian olive trees take root in Kurdish Iraq

Tucked away in the rolling hills of Iraqi Kurdistan is a hidden treasure — tens of thousands of olive trees thriving in a new homeland after being smuggled from neighboring Syria.

Their branches heave with bright purplish-black olives ready to be picked.

The trees’ caretaker, Syrian Kurdish businessman Suleiman Sheikho, is proud to have exported the olive oil business to Iraq’s autonomous north.

“This year was a good year,” said Sheikho, who has been transporting trees from his native Afrin in northwest Syria to Kurdish Iraq since 2007.

“On this farm I have 42,000 olive trees, all of which I brought from Afrin when they were 3 years old,” he said while gesturing to neat rows reaching the horizon.

In early 2018, his mission became more urgent.

Turkey, which viewed the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Afrin across its border as a threat, backed an offensive by Syrian rebels to take control of it.

The operation, dubbed “Olive Branch,” displaced tens of thousands, many of whom made their living by producing olive oil in the area’s mild climate.

Sheikho is a fourth-generation olive farmer and had 4,000 trees in Afrin that are more than 100 years old.

The slender businessman, who once served as the head of the Afrin Union for Olive Production, sprang into action.

He transported some of his trees legally, but smuggled others across the border, managed on both sides by autonomous Kurdish authorities.

Some of the new transplants became part of his orchard, located among luxurious summer villas near the regional capital, Arbil. He sold others to farmers across Kurdish Iraq.

Raw olives are a staple on Levantine lunch tables, while their oil is used in cooking and drizzled on top of popular appetizers like hummus.

The oil can also be used to make soap, while the dark, sawdust-like olive residue is commonly burned to heat houses during the winter.

Olive trees struggle in the blistering heat and desert landscapes of Iraq, so the yellowish-green oil has long been imported at great expense from Lebanon, Syria and Turkey.

A domestic Olive industry could change that.

Sheikho was relieved to find the soil near Arbil as rich as in his hometown, but the warmer temperatures meant his trees required more robust irrigation networks.

There are two harvests a year — in February and November.

He built a press where olives are separated from twigs and leaves, pitted, then squeezed to produce thick, aromatic oil.

Sheikho tests the quality by drinking it raw from the press before the viscous fluid is poured into plastic jugs.

“For every 100 kilos of olives, I produce 23 kilos of olive oil,” he said.

Olive oil production had not taken root when Sheikho began working here, but has thrived since Syrians displaced by their country’s nearly decade-long war began relocating to Iraq.

According to the Kurdish regional government’s agriculture ministry, there were fewer than 170,000 olive trees in the Kurdish region in 2008.

Since then, the ministry invested US$23 million to plant and import the trees, and there are now as many as 4 million of them.

There are six olive presses where many Syrian Kurds from Afrin work.

Sheikho sees more fertile ground ahead.

“The farmers here have great ideas and are extremely ambitious,” he said.

“With hard work and the experience of Afrin’s farmers, they will create a very bright future for the olive business.”


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