Not willing to abandon hope, Lara Shahin empowered herself and fellow Syrian refugee women through a new business initiative of selling handmade soaps and a variety of handicrafts.
The big smile on Lara Shahin’s face as she walks into her office on International Women’s Day is hard to miss. She rushes back from an interview with a local radio station in Amman, Jordan that is honoring the holiday by having Shahin speak about her expanding business, an organization that helps Syrian women refugees become entrepreneurs of their own.
“We’re breaking the barriers of the traditional image of a Syrian woman,” says Shahin, 37. “And it really is for the best.”
Her company, Syrian Jasmine, sells and promotes Syrian handicrafts and artisanal soaps made of 100 percent natural products, such as olive oil, shea butter and essential oils. They are all made by Syrian refugee women who are now living in Jordan.
But it wasn’t until recently that her company began to thrive. Her goal now is to pave a path for other Syrian refugee women across the region to reach entrepreneurial self-sufficiency, as well.
“This June, I’ll be opening up my second location in Istanbul, where I’m hoping to reach an even larger population of Syrian women and other international clientele,” says Shahin.
Last month, she received her first large order for an international shipment to the United Kingdom – an opportunity that has the potential to turn into a partnership. In addition to selling products, her company hosts soap-making and crochet workshops, through the Airbnb Experiences network, for locals and tourists alike looking to learn new skills.
Her success is quite unique to the female refugee narrative in the Middle East, but the process has been anything but smooth.
Shahin fled from war-torn Damascus in 2012 with her parents and siblings after their lives were threatened for helping shelter fleeing war victims in their home.
Like many refugees coming from Syria, she never thought that this situation would be permanent. So instead of searching for a full-time job in Jordan, she continued dedicating her time to aid work with organizations that help less fortunate families living in refugee camps.
Jordan hosts 671,428 Syrian refugees – the third largest group of registered refugees in the region, but second in terms of the demographic ratio of Syrians in the country, according to UNHCR reports.
As she continued visiting the camps, she noticed a pattern of women producing homemade items, including soaps, creams, and colourful crochet blankets. For them it was a matter of necessity so that they wouldn’t have to buy the products. Then she noticed that some women would even sell their products to their neighbours in the camps.
Handmade crafts are an integral part of Syrian culture. In fact, textiles represented 63 percent of Syria’s industrial sector before the war began.
“The biggest thing I noticed was that these women had all the tools to create a business of their own, but didn’t have the knowledge of how to use them,” remembers Shahin.
And that is how the idea of Syrian Jasmine was born.
Shahin began by gathering a group of five women and teaching them how to create their products more efficiently, with less expensive ingredients, market them and then sell them in a profitable way.
“I realized that starting this business and selling these items, would not only help me as the sole provider of my family, but also other Syrian women who needed an extra source of income to survive and thrive,” explained Shahin.
But she had two main obstacles that faced her: being a refugee with limited labour market rights – and being born a woman.
Although Jordan offers a limited amount work permits for refugees, the process involved in obtaining one is quite complex. And most work permits are only approved for specific job sectors, such as the agricultural sector, which is granted the most permits.
Additionally, women have been largely excluded from employment opportunities both inside and outside the refugee camps. According to an April 2018 UNHCR report, only four percent of work permits across all sectors are given to women.
“This is a problem when you consider how difficult it is for men to work in this country, and the number of women whose husbands, brothers and fathers have been killed because of the war,” says Shahin.
When Shahin wanted to start her company in 2014, the only legal option she had was to invest $70,522-$141,044 (50,000 - $100,000 JOD) to register it under her name. This amount was nearly impossible for her to come up with at the time.
So, she allowed a Jordanian colleague who she had met at an aid organisation to register the business under his name.
“That was my first big mistake,” she says. “One morning I came to the shop to find that he had stolen the equipment, months of work and investments, and just vanished. And there was nothing I could do about it.”
Shahin’s case is not unique to the region’s refugee experience.
“Syrian refugees in Jordan all-too-often end up in hazardous or precarious informal work in the quest for governmental and organisational gain,” explains Julia Morris, Post Doctorate Fellow at the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility. She is also an Assistant Professor of International Studies at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.
But after receiving overwhelming support from her community, Shahin picked herself back up and decided to start her business all over again – this time with another Syrian refugee as a partner – Maya Al Babbili, who had years of experience making artisanal soaps in Syria.
Shahin expanded from a team of five women in a 50 square-metre office to a team of more than 40 women in a 150 square-metre workshop, where she works from today. Shahin and Al Babbili have also created an entrepreneurial workshop, which they provide four times a year to women living in refugee camps. Over the past three years, they’ve coached more than 200 women in expanding home-based businesses right inside the camps.
New labour laws in 2018 allowed Shahin to register Syrian Jasmine under her own name and legally employ the women who work with her. While most of the women work from home, the company now supports seven full-time employees who take home between $353-$494 (250-350 JOD) a month.
One of them is a 70-year-old woman who journeys two hours from her home from the outskirts of the city to get to work every day, just to be able to pay her rent. Another woman says that even though her husband works random, handy jobs, her position as a seamstress has helped her move from a crime- and drug-ridden neighbourhood into a safer area in the city, where her children can go to school.
For other women who work with Shahin and Al-Babbili, this project is a starting point for their own businesses.
What began as a hobby for Iman Al Droubi has transformed into a means of income. “I fell in love with the business side of it when I started working with Lara,” Al Droubi explains.
“It’s incredible that something I make with my own hands can be valued so much by others.”
Iman uses the $71-$141 (50-100 JOD) per month to help with her children’s school expenses. But her goal is to expand her business in the future and become a known name in the crochet industry.
In addition to opening up her second location in Istanbul, Shahin plans to participate in innovative conferences and programs around the world this year, including the Netherlands-based HiiL organisation, that makes justice accessible to those who need it.
“I want the world to know that we are more than just Syrian refugees,” says Shahin. “We are artisans, innovators and designers who can be an asset to the countries that are hosting us.”