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Refugee Businesses Emerge Out of Crisis

A growing number of people who've fled Iraq and Syria are managing to build businesses, sometimes in the most difficult settings.
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Outside, the yellow-orange dust blows over a city of tents from the UN Refugee Agency, but inside Majedah al-Dabogh's concrete beauty salon, the air is cool, the walls are pink, and a cabinet holds her small business's beauty supplies.

Al-Dabogh is a Syrian refugee who fled to this Jordanian border city of Zaatri as fighting rages in her home country. She's having trouble with her landlord, which she dismisses with a toss of her head.

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"He wants to raise my rent — I can't pay more," she said with a shrug. Formerly a salon owner in Syria, she found a job in a salon in Jordan and then opened her own place here in the refugee camp, where she earns about 100-200 Jordanian dinars, or $140-$280, a month. After her flight from Syria and her two-year-long struggle to open the business, the message in her attitude is clear: She's not going anywhere.

Al-Dabogh is one of a growing number of people who've fled Iraq and Syria but are managing to build businesses, sometimes in the most difficult settings: refugee camps and communities that are home to hundreds of thousands of people displaced by fighting between their governments, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other groups. The UN estimates that 600,000 Syrian refugees are in Jordan, though the number is likely even higher.

For its part, the Jordanian government is struggling with the Herculean task of coping with the influx, often inconsistently. Because of concerns that Syrians and Iraqis will take jobs from native Jordanians, work permits are difficult to get. It's even harder to get a permit to open a business, say aid organizations. Those who do open businesses have connections or family within Jordan, or they just ignore the rules.

"Life is like a sea, and we have to be the captains," said Fadia Bayati, 42, an Iraqi, who earned a communications degree in Baghdad before her family was displaced by the war. After 10 years in Jordan, the mother of three sons earns about 350 dinars ($493) a month as a freelance medical researcher and a trainer in programs that teach people how to avoid sexual harassment. She also works as a volunteer liaison to refugee communities.

"I'll help," she assured Badria Qatlish, 40, a newly arrived Syrian refugee who fled with her husband and six children. Back home, soldiers snatched Qatlish's husband, who owned a photography studio, for questioning. They returned him eventually, but it was clear the time had come for them to get out, Qatlish said.

"The children were terrified," she said. "We couldn't live with that."

Her husband has been unable to find work, so with the help of Atlanta-based CARE, Qatlish has started a business selling Syrian kubbah — a wheat pastry stuffed with ground meat — to neighbors in the small city of Zarqa, another place where refugees have settled. The local schools just began to accept Syrians for enrollment, so she hopes she will be able to expand the business further when she has more child care.

Many of the refugee entrepreneurs are being aided by business-building and microfinance programs, which have ramped up in response to the crisis. According to the Jordanian government, there are eight microfinance institutions operating in the country, with a total portfolio of $173 million. In 2013, they served 270,000 clients. Many of the programs were established to aid Jordanians, but they help refugees, too.

"Life is like a sea, and we have to be the captains."

Last week, the San Francisco-based crowdfunder, which helps make loans to entrepreneurs around the world, set up another program: In partnership with Grameen-Jameel Microfinance Ltd., a nonprofit that provides funds in the Middle East, it is offering 13,000 people $25 to lend to a Middle Eastern entrepreneur through Kiva — essentially, a free trial on the website. A spokesman said 400 people had signed up so far.

As for al-Dabogh, she is hunkered down for a fight with her landlord. When the war worsened in Syria, she was on a visit to Jordan. Unable to return to the country after her village was destroyed, she stayed. Her seven grown children and ex-husband, meanwhile, fled to Lebanon. She would like to see them, but worries she wouldn't be able to return if she leaves.

As she talked, the rest of her story emerged. Her landlord wants to double her rent — if she won't marry him.

"I tell her, report him to the police," said Shaker al-Khaldi, a Jordanian government official who has become a friend.

The salon, where she also lives, is all she has, she said.

"I have suffered a lot in my life," she said. "It makes me stronger."

—By Elizabeth MacBride, Special to