Eyad Mohammed has become an expert at waiting.
After fleeing Quneitrah in southern Syria four years ago, Mr. Mohammed waited months to find housing for himself and his pregnant wife in Jordan. There, he waited six months to be granted official documents, and now waits each month for $60 in food vouchers to be credited to his food card.
Unable to legally work, the college English major took courses toward a master’s degree in social work at a local university and volunteered for the very aid agencies he relied on. For four years, the 29-year-old Syrian has been waiting for a return to normalcy, to “stand on his own feet.”
Now Mohammed says he has gained independence: his own business.
“For years I was just a number, waiting on the world for handouts,” says Mohammed, now an English instructor at his soon-to-be launched Peace International Academy, which helps fill the educational and language-training gaps left by overburdened Jordanian schools.
“Now I can share my skills and give back to others,” he says. “I can live.”
As part of a new initiative spearheaded by the World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations is giving educated Syrians and Jordanians training in business and IT skills, equipping and encouraging them to open their own start-ups in Jordan.
The Syrians and Jordanians chosen to participate are either college graduates or stand-out high school graduates who want to be entrepreneurs or have an idea for a business.
The project is part of a shift in approach to the Syrian refugee crisis, away from direct aid and assistance and toward finding a way Syrian families can support themselves while contributing to, rather than taxing, local host communities.
Finding jobs for Syrians has long been a sensitive issue in refugee host countries. Countries such as Jordan and Lebanon have long denied Syrians work permits amid concerns that their refugee communities of more than a million people would flood the host labor markets, drive down wages, and create social unrest.
Yet with no political solution in sight and Syrian families falling deeper into debt, UN agencies that themselves face chronic funding shortages are now shifting toward income-generating programs and other initiatives to help Syrian refugees become more self-reliant.
“We have people who are highly skilled coming from Syria, and these people can contribute to Jordan and other host countries,” says Shada Moghraby, a WFP spokeswoman in Amman.
“This is recognition of the need to shift from direct assistance to offering a sustainable source of income for Syrian families.”
Syrians largely rebuffed attempts by Jordan last year to employ them in factories in special industrial zones in the country, with only a few dozen signing up for a scheme to employ more than 100,000. Jordan has opened up limited sectors to its 1.6 million Syrians, namely agriculture and garments manufacturing, with some 45,000 work permits issued.
“We spent years in university, we are not trained to sit in a factory or work on a farm,” says Nawal al Logi, 26, from Damascus, who took part in the UN program.
More than half of Syrians working in Jordan are estimated to work in unregulated sectors such as construction or plumbing, an often-perilous undertaking. Those working illegally risk being deported back to Syria, while employers often withhold wages.
“We looked for legal work that fit our skills and didn’t find anything,” says Ahmad Abushaar, co-founder of Lama Express, one of the start-ups. “We decided, why wait for work that won’t come when we can make it ourselves?”
Through the program – part of a series of resilience projects funded by the German government for $3.1 million – the UN and partners have provided 300 Jordanians and Syrians training on how to carry out economic feasibility studies, budgeting, marketing, and data entry and management.
By pairing Jordanian and Syrian entrepreneurs, the UN believes it has found a beneficial and practical loophole in Jordanian labor laws:
• By partnering with Jordanians, Syrians are able to register their companies and enjoy full legal rights – a distinction they could not secure themselves alone as Syrian nationals.
• By creating partnerships, the UN is creating employment for Jordanians as well as Syrians, allaying government’s fears and building bridges between the two communities.
• By unleashing the creativity and skills of Syrians, program advocates say refugees can give back to the community and lessen the strain of the refugee crisis.
“Instead of asking for the law to be changed, we are meeting the law,” says Obeidah Shaqfa, co-founder of Peace International Academy.
Peace International was founded by three Syrians and three Jordanians, an initiative to use the skills of Syrians in tutoring, language classes, and education training.
Founders hope that the initiative will fill in any gaps left by Jordan’s schools, many of which have switched to half-day, two-shift systems to accommodate the influx of 145,000 Syrian students. The initiative also provides assistance to Syrians who have spent years outside the school to catch up.
“We want to step in and provide a step up for Jordanians and Syrians who are falling behind because of this crisis,” says Salam Bara, 28, a teacher and Jordanian co-founder of Peace International.
Others have chosen to merge the humanitarian and business sectors.
Another joint venture is Lama Express, an online shopping and logistics company that delivers to the home. The initiative partnered with the Molham Team, a Syrian-run NGO that provides medical and emergency assistance to Syrians both within and outside Syria.
As part of its partnership with Molham, Lama Express agreed to devote a percentage of all sales to the NGO. In return, its partnership with a non-profit allows it to import goods without paying customs, a competitive edge enabling it to sell below market price.
“We are both generating income for Jordanians and Syrians and giving something back to the most vulnerable Syrians,” says Abdelaader Abu Namous, a 21-year-old Jordanian and Lama Express co-founder.
“We are realizing that our future as Syrians and Jordanians is one.”
Any shift in the refugee relief sector from emergency aid to resilience projects comes as refugees face worsening economic prospects. With 80 percent of Syrian refugees living outside camps and residing in urban communities, Syrian families are falling deeper into poverty.
As of late 2016, over 93 percent of Syrians in Jordan are living under the poverty line, with incomes of $88 per person per month or less, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Some 75 percent of Syrian households are in debt, owing on average $1,000 in unpaid rent. In Lebanon, the numbers were similarly bleak: 91 percent of Syrian households are in debt, owing an average of $940, while 70 percent live below the poverty line of $115 per person per month.
Other agencies seeking to promote refugees’ resilience have attempted to provide vocational training for Jordanians and Syrians as electricians, car mechanics, plumbers, and factory welders
Yet encouraging Syrian refugees to open their own businesses marks a first in the region – and a bold step the UN believes can limit Syrians’ reliance on aid hand-outs.
With the success of the first German-funded round of the program, and with many businesses getting off the ground, the WFP and UN are now looking to other donors to broaden the program to include more beneficiaries across Jordan and to link existing startups with private sector investors.
In future phases, UN program officials hope that the Syrians could use their skills to work remotely for European IT companies – again, avoiding the red tape of local work permits.
If entrepreneurship holds the key, many Syrians say they are ready to end the waiting.
“We are tired of hand-outs,” Mohammed said.
“If we can work, then we can live.”