As she’s done for ages, Mrs. Frida leans her body weight onto a rolling pin and flattens out the dough until it seems impossibly paper-thin. Then she opens up the oven door and brings out perfectly browned pieces of Armenian gata, and the magically delicious aroma spreads all over the kitchen of VAN – a new bakery in Yerevan.

Although VAN is owned by a Syrian-Armenian, Mrs. Frida and her four local colleagues don’t concentrate on Syrian dishes. Instead, they make traditional Armenian baked goods and pastries – the types of food that, according to some clients, can’t be found anywhere else in Yerevan.

With his background in agriculture and the automotive industry, VAN’s Syrian-Armenian owner Nerses Kivo had to leave everything in Aleppo – his job, house, and friends – to flee civil war.

“When my sister was killed, I felt that my family was no longer safe. I had been running my auto part factory for more than 25 years. 40 people, Arabs, used to work there,” remarks Nerses with a sorrow deep in his heart, and then adds that moving to Armenia in 2013 came as a breakthrough for him.

Nerses Kivo is a stout man of 49, with an easy-going personality that’s self-evident in his relationship with his employees. After thorough research on the pros and cons of the Armenian market, Nerses opened a bakery and made it a personal mission to delve deep into Armenian culinary traditions. ”The Aleppo factory was a very profitable business. Besides our main market in Syria [with 28 million customers], we also exported our products to other countries throughout the region – Iraq, Emirates, Lebanon, Jordan, etc. In this regard, the Armenian market is very small and competitive,” says Nerses, adding that he hasn’t faced many hurdles in terms of launching his business. The laws and the paperwork have been manageable.

To boost his food business and make the bakery more inviting to customers, Nerses Kivo applied for FAR’s Small Business Assistance Program (SBA)* for Syrian Armenian Entrepreneurs in 2016. Upon receiving the grant, he constructed the outside roof of the bakery. “We don’t have any seating area inside the bakery. People come and buy pastries from the window, meaning that they often get wet in the fall and run to the shade in the hot summer. They often complained, and I decided to build a roof to protect my customers in extreme weather conditions,” explains Nerses. He also purchased special baking ovens, thus being able to meet the high demand of the daily orders.

Almost sheepishly, Nerses adds that the only thing he has ever wanted in life was to feel safe, to work and be treated fairly under the law, and to see a better future for his 16-year-old daughter Vana and 8-month-old son Narek. FAR hopes that the SBA grant will get Nerses closer to those modest goals, and allow his business to thrive as he finds safety and a better future in his new home.

*The FAR’s Small Business Assistance Program (SBA) was launched in late 2016. The program aims to support Syrian-Armenian startup entrepreneurs to economically integrate in Armenia and to develop their own businesses in Armenia.The selected businesses focus on the areas of jewelry, metal work, food production, antique furniture repair, and language teaching.