Magazine article Newsweek

A Female Syrian Entrepreneur Builds in Exile; Most Syrian Refugees in Jordan Are Unable to Work Legally, for Now

Magazine article Newsweek

A Female Syrian Entrepreneur Builds in Exile; Most Syrian Refugees in Jordan Are Unable to Work Legally, for Now

Article excerpt

Byline: Oscar Lopez

Updated | Sitting behind a large wooden desk in her white hijab, a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, Lara Shaheen looks every bit the modern Arab businesswoman. The only problem is that her business is illegal.

Shaheen, 34, is a refugee from Syria--she fled four years ago after President Bashar al-Assad's regime arrested her brothers. They were released after three months, but the experience was enough to prompt Shaheen and her family to flee Damascus. Shaheen came to Amman, Jordan, with her mother, father and younger sister, while her brothers escaped to Germany. After that ordeal, her parents developed health problems. With her sister only 17 and her brothers far away, supporting the family was left to Shaheen. "I'm the lonely girl who must work to make money for my family," she says.

When she first got to Jordan, she volunteered with Hemma, a local organization providing support to Syrian refugees living outside of camps. But after nine months, Shaheen realized she wanted to do more, explaining, "We are staying here for a long time, so you can't keep giving people handouts."

With the Syrian conflict now in its sixth year, exile is becoming increasingly permanent for refugees like Shaheen. However, the vast majority are unable to work legally in Jordan. Although they can apply for work permits, obtaining them is a complex and often prohibitively expensive process.

As a result, Jordan's Ministry of Labor estimates that fewer than 1 percent of refugees there have access to legal work permits, while some 160,000 to 200,000 Syrians are working illegally, without any of the legal protections Jordan's labor laws offer. This could soon change. In March, Jordanian authorities announced that, as part of a new deal with the EU, they would allow up to 200,000 Syrian refugees to work legally.

In April, the government implemented measures to make it easier for Syrians to work, including a temporary waiver of application fees and a 90-day grace period for employers in the informal sector to obtain permits for Syrian refugees. According to the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, "this could see up to 78,000 Syrians able to work legally in Jordan in the short term, and thousands more in the coming years."

Whether these measures will include women remains to be seen--up until now, Syrian women have had very limited access to employment in Jordan. Even taking into account the informal economy, according to the International Labor Organization, only 7 percent of Syrian women in Jordan work.

Shaheen wants to change that. When she worked with Hemma, the local nonprofit, she noticed a lot of the Syrian women were sewing, weaving or making handicrafts. She started taking pictures of the items and selling them on Facebook, splitting the profits with the women. Despite not having a work permit, Shaheen developed the project into a small business under the name Syrian Jasmine. With help from a Jordanian friend, she was able to lease a small office space in downtown Amman.

She now employs five women full time at her office and buys merchandise from 40 other women. Jasmine sells handmade soap, baby clothes, toys, creams, jewelry and more, all of it made by Syrians. For many of the women Shaheen works with, this is their first job. "In Syria, a lot of men don't allow their women to work," she says. "But here, it's different because they know they need to make money."

The story of Shaheen and her employees is far from the norm in Jordan, where in addition to bureaucratic barriers to working, refugee women face high risks of assault, rape and other abuse. A 2014 report from UNHCR conducted in Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt found that half of the women interviewed went outside their homes less often in their new host country than when they were living in Syria. Many reported feeling isolated and unsafe, with one in three too scared to leave the house at all. …

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