The basement was cold and dank. The Iraqi refugee women huddled around the single kerosene heater - gloves on, scarves wrapped tightly around their necks. They began to speak. "We can do anything. We have to." "Our husbands sit at home depressed and do nothing," they said. Fierce. Tough. Reticent. We were in the grim, industrial city of Zarqa, some 30 miles north of Amman. It is a place where many Iraqi refugees relocate when they start to deplete their savings: the rents are cheaper than Amman; the city, shrouded in smog, is less desirable.
I was here on behalf of the Near East Foundation (NEF), a partner organization, to assess home-based enterprises: Are they viable? If so, which sectors provide the most realistic and lucrative opportunities?
Iraqi refugees do not have the right to work in Jordan, but they can engage in "under-the-radar" income generation activities. This informal work, much of it undertaken in refugees' homes, is a source of much-needed money to provide for their families. In addition, prevailing socio-cultural norms often impede women's mobility in the public sphere and hamper their access to markets and other economic opportunities. As such, home-based enterprises are the only feasible option for most Iraqis and even for many Jordanian women.
Working with NEF's local Jordanian staff, albeit all of Palestinian origin, I met with groups on all sides of this issue. We spoke with Iraqi women, Iraqi male youth and Jordanian women, as well as local non-governmental organizations and local government. We visited women with successful home-based enterprises to learn about how they managed the challenges they faced and the opportunities they found. We met with local factory owners to assess possibilities for outsourcing work to women in their homes. As per the local culture, each meeting was replete with tea, Turkish coffee and an array of local dates and sweets.
Aisha, a Jordanian woman, began making vinegar from her home two years ago. Today she employs eight other women, making a variety of homemade vinegars from apples, ginger, pears and lemons. She has had her product certified by the government for quality control, has successfully marketed her product to all the major supermarkets, and now sells 6,000 bottles per month. One woman makes cheese in her home, another grows mushrooms, while a third makes delicious chocolate-covered dates. While each woman had faced unique challenges and struggles - being ripped off by middlemen, not being paid by customers, being under-sold by someone who stole their product idea - each was getting by. They spoke of their businesses with pride and with ideas for future expansion. They spoke about recipes handed down from their mothers and grandmothers. They spoke of the cultural preference for homemade products versus store-bought and pre-packaged ones.
In spite of this feasibility and opportunity, however, the challenges are real and daunting - how to brand and market when your mobility is restricted? How to manage expenses when you have no experience keeping books or managing finances? How to compete in a market that's increasingly flooded with cheap Chinese imports? How to invest in the needed capital start-up assets without access to banks and other financial services?
My assessment was to build the road map, detail the opportunities and assist with plans to address the needs. I identified the most feasible, lucrative, home-based economic opportunities for the NEF staff to focus on; helped them think through a strategy for moving forward, and provided training for them and their local partners on how to ensure that the opportunities they are going to help create are safe for the women participating.
It is now in the capable hands of the dedicated NEF staff to implement these recommendations and findings. They will do this by providing start-up grants, mentoring businesses, and creating women's bazaars and other opportunities to access markets. Successes here may create program models and provide opportunities for the newer, Syrian refugee population as well. One thing, though, is certain: we have a strong and capable partner in refugee women.