Jordanians seize ‘Shark Tank'-like opportunity amid competition from Syrian refugees for work
Stoic and composed, Itimad Bassam sat before the judges and confidently made her pitch.
“I will rescue old clothes that have been thrown away in my neighborhood and turn them into wearable secondhand clothes,” the 22-year-old told the panel. “There’s a factory in my neighborhood. I will convince them to give me their old clothes so I can recycle them to make pillowcases, pot handle holders, and redesign the clothes into more stylish outfits.
“I will start the operation in a room in my house. It will be a family business.”
In what could be a scene snatched from the reality television show “Shark Tank,” would-be entrepreneurs such as Bassam are peppered with questions: Who will be your target customers? What kind of machinery and equipment will you need? Where do you see yourself in two years?
The panel, which on this day included representatives of the United Nations Development Program, microfinance bank investors and visiting members of the U.N. Foundation Global Entrepreneurs Council, mulled over whether Bassam’s business idea was viable and sustainable and should qualify for seed money to get it off the ground.
The initiative is part of an emergency employment project sponsored by the U.N. and designed to help ease the effect of the Syrian refugee crisis on host communities, where about 670,000 Syrians are now registered with the world body as refugees (the Jordanian government puts the number of Syrians settled in the country at around 1.3 million).
In Jordan, competition for jobs is so fierce that it has fueled resentment between the newcomers and their hosts, humanitarian aid officials say. The country’s unemployment rate now stands at 14% and while the correlation between the rise in unemployment and Syrian arrivals is unclear, many Jordanians blame the refugees for their inability to find work, particularly in sectors such as seasonal harvesting and construction.
The emergency employment project provides income support for vulnerable Jordanians, especially young people and women, said Minako Manome, a livelihoods and recovery specialist for UNDP in Jordan. The aim is to “strengthen their sense of belonging as productive members of households and societies … and promote social cohesion at the local level,” she said.
Those who enter the competition are asked to come up with business models based on the emergency needs of their communities. They receive a monthly stipend of 208 Jordanian dinars, or nearly $295 — half of which they have to save. They then receive training in how to set up and manage a microbusiness, and later pitch the venture to an evaluation committee.
Those who win the approval of the evaluation committee have their savings multiplied to 2,000 dinars ($2,820), money that is to be used to launch the business. The final phase provides the budding entrepreneurs with technical support, business counseling and links to financial service providers and markets.
So far, 1,530 people have participated in the community initiatives and training courses in Jordan, and 450 of them have established 350 microbusinesses, according to UNDP data.
Bassam was among the success stories.
She said the trash heaps of old fabric and garments piled in her neighborhood triggered the idea to launch a clothes-recycling venture. The eldest of seven siblings, Bassam said she knew it could work as a family business since her mother was a skilled seamstress.
The business would initially be run from her home, but her goal is to open a small kiosk in the densely populated low-income district of Al-Khaldieh, 12 miles south of the city of Mafraq. If the venture takes off, she plans to use some of the income to finish her university studies, which she said she abandoned because of financial constraints.
“Innovation and entrepreneurship … is critical to helping families break the cycle of poverty and allowing Jordan to grow its economy from within,” said Ashish Thakkar, chair of the U.N. Foundation’s Global Entrepreneurs Council, who recently sat in on a business pitch session.
Saeed Zaki, 26, who pitched developing solar heaters with self-generating electricity cells, said that even before the Syrians arrived, people were struggling in Al-Khaldieh where, according to local media reports, about 46% of the residents live below the Jordanian poverty line of nearly $90 a month.
With the wave of newcomers, the rent for an apartment that once went for $98 a month increased to around $285 a month, Zaki said.
Resentment toward Syrians is compounded by the fact that refugees are allowed to work even though they receive a monthly living allowance and food vouchers from the U.N., Zaki said. As a result, Syrians who manage to obtain the necessary work permits are able to accept a lower salary, making them attractive employees. And those who work illegally were often shortchanged and so were also undercutting salary levels by providing cheap labor, many Jordanians said.
“I’m unable to find a job because the competition is so high,” Zaki said. “I can’t even think about getting married. It’s nothing personal against Syrians, it’s just the competition.”
Eman Awadallah, 38, a mother of three, completed the final leg of the employment program last year and used her 2,000 dinars to establish a bread and pastry business.
Her husband, a professional baker of shrak — a traditional soft unleavened flatbread — had faced competition in his industry since the Syrians arrived, Awadallah said. Sometimes he would go without work for 10 days at a time.
“The employment opportunities had become harder and harder and one income wasn’t enough for the family,” Awadallah said.
That’s what persuaded her to pursue the microbusiness program.
“It was a great opportunity for me,” said Awadallah, who now bakes and packages the products in her home and sells them to the community. “Before we had limitations as far as income. Now we feel more comfortable.”
In Rehab municipality, one of Jordan’s most desperate “poverty pockets,” Zainab Khazaleh, 39, was keen to show off the room in her home she converted to a workshop to make dairy products, such as a yogurt drink called “Shaneneh,” and cheese, complemented by homemade fig jam.
A mother of five, Khazaleh said she had long dreamed about setting up her own business. So when she heard about the competition, she applied with the blessing of her husband, Mohammad, a retired Jordanian military man who has struggled for years to find work.
“I couldn’t even find a job as a taxi driver,” he said. “We used to be able to help with the seasonal harvest. Now it’s all Syrians helping with the harvest. [Employers] are more willing to employ Syrians than Jordanians because they are cheaper to employ.”
With his wife’s new venture, the couple now earn between $282 and $352 a month. Within the first two months of launching the business they were able to purchase a refrigerator, a virtual extravagance at $775.
“The program has changed my life in a positive way,” Khazaleh said.
Funding for this report was provided by the United Nations Foundation.
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