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Beauty

Syrian Refugee Finds Comfort in Cosmetics: ‘I’ve Gotten the Opportunity to Step Back Into Some Semblance of My Former Life’

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Robert Bell Photography

Syrian refugee Ani Apelian is continuing her lifelong passion for selling cosmetics through Avon after being forced to flee her village in 2014.

Apelian, a mother of three, took over her father’s Kessab soap and beauty business, Laurapel, in 1985 and ran it with her husband, Steve, for 20 years. Together, the couple sold organic products made from the beautiful, fragrant cherry laurel found in the nearby mountains. In fact, the whole town smelled “sweet and flowery” thanks to Apelian’s soap factory.

“My family and I have deep roots in the beauty industry,” Ani, 59, tells PEOPLE. “What you put on your skin becomes a part of you. From an emotional standpoint, what you put on affects your identity. When you feel confident, beautiful and strong, it shows. I love beauty because it is a small but crucial way that I’m able to help people feel better about their lives, and to see the world in a new and brighter way.”

Ani Apelian
Ani Apelian

But two years ago, al-Qaida rebels seized Kessab. And the town’s light floral fragrance was replaced by the smell of gun-smoke.

“One morning we woke up because the terrorists entered and we were being bombed,” says Ani. “We were in a panic because bombs were going off everywhere. We knew they were coming to kill us.

“They wanted to take our lives.”

Ani Apelian
Ani Apelian

AniĀ and her family fled to Dubai to stay with her daughter, Tsolag, before settling in Corona, California, to live with her son, Shoghag.

They came with nothing.

“Because of the invasion, we lost so much,” says Ani. “The loss of Laurapel is another tragedy on top of everything else our family suffered.”

Ani Apelian
Ani Apelian

Steve, recognizing that his wife yearned for familiarity in their new American home, began searching for jobs in the cosmetic industry. When he found Avon, he knew it was the perfect match for Ani.

“It was a comfort to me that even though we’d lost everything from our home life in Kessab, things can be rebuilt,” she says. “The pride I take as a businesswoman, and as a purveyor of products, this I did not lose.”

Ani has been selling cosmetics for Avon for over a year and feels “so, so happy” to have found an opportunity to work in the beauty industry. She’s developed a list of steady clientele and an online portal to sell her Avon products.

“I’ve gotten the opportunity to step back into some semblance of my former life in the beauty industry,” says Ani, a representative of Avon’s new Boss Life initiative. “It’s not the same, but I still get to own my very own small business. I still get to help women feel beautiful and confident and connect them with quality products that make them feel good about themselves.

“And I take pride in that.”