Amman, Jordan — Sounds of laughter echo out of a small fifth-floor office overlooking Amman’s traffic-packed Medina Munawara Street. However, the women chatting over a cup of coffee inside are not friends or neighbors, but business entrepreneurs congratulating one another for impressing a new potential client. They have been brought together by war and exile — and one Syrian woman’s determination to empower herself and fellow refugees.
Lara Shaheen, 39, moved to Amman from Damascus three years ago. While volunteering with organizations in Jordan that supported vulnerable Syrian families, she quickly grew disenchanted with the limitations of such help, which did nothing to help displaced Syrians in the long run.
“I wanted to break free from the cycle of aid and produce something sustainable,” said Shaheen, formerly an office manager in Syria.
Three years on, Shaheen is running Jasmine, a for-profit initiative by and for Syrian women in Amman. The group of some three dozen women produces handmade merchandise including soap, candles, perfumes, accessories, embroidery and food products.
“Most of the women within this institution are vulnerable. Their husbands either cannot find work in Amman, or are not here with them,” Shaheen said.
Taking a sip of Turkish coffee from a delicately designed demitasse made by one of her colleagues, Shaheen explains to me how Jasmine works. The women first sell their products to Shaheen, making a profit each of approximately 200-400 Jordanian dinars (about 280-560 U.S. dollars) per month. Shaheen then uses social media and her contacts to market the products, and uses the extra profit made to pay office rent and full-time assistants. Although revenue varies according to season, it is enough to help the women support their families in paying rent and securing necessities.
“If more people thought in the same way, and focused on empowering a number of families, they would no longer need aid,” said Shaheen. “It’s better to enable people to become self-dependent, than to temporarily help hundreds.”
Um Hadi, a 40-year-old mother of five, moved to Amman two years ago after losing her home in the Damascus suburbs. Her husband, like most Syrian refugees in Jordan, struggles to find work here between difficult-to-obtain work permits and threats of deportation for those who work illegally. After meeting Shaheen, Um Hadi joined the Jasmine group, which she says helped her cope with more than just material difficulties.
“We all have a similar situation: we do not want to wait for help from other people,” said Um Hadi. “Here you are isolated, so naturally, when you know there is someone to stand with you, it’s a great help. Now we’re like family, we only know each other and we help each other out.”
Many of the women in Jasmine did not work previously. Um Yousef, 39, moved to Jordan three years ago with her family, after they lost their home and shop to regime shelling in rural Damascus. Although both her husband and her son have found work here in Amman, it is not enough to support their family of six.
“I never thought I had it in me to work like this.”
“When I met Lara, I told her that I like to make accessories. She asked if I’d worked before and I said no, but I wanted to try,” said Um Yousef, smiling in front of her accessory display. “I started attending bazaars, and things took off for me. I never thought I had it in me to work like this.”
Local businessmen, like the one who was visiting the office, have been showing interest in marketing some of Jasmine’s products, as well as investing in the project, a prospect Shaheen hopes will become a reality. Her hope is one day to expand business to Turkey, but for now she looks around the office with pride.
“I feel like we have made a little homeland for ourselves within this workshop,” Shaheen said.
Hiba Dlewati is a Syrian American journalist and writer moving throughout Jordan, Turkey and Sweden to document and narrate the stories of the Syrian diaspora. Twitter: @Hiba_Dlewati