For displaced Syrian hairdresser, a chance to start over

UNHCR small business grant programme aims to give 400 displaced people within Syria a chance to start over this year.

Palestinian-Syrian hairdresser Momena attends to a client at her small salon in Damascus.  © UNHCR/S. Shekfeh

DAMASCUS, Syria, March 23 (UNHCR) - "I thought this would be the end for me and my family. The half-room we were offered at the shelter felt like a small grave."

With these few words, Palestinian-Syrian hairdresser Momena describes the moment that she, her husband and their three young children touched rock bottom on arriving at a collective shelter in Damascus after they lost everything in the war.

Displaced five times in five years, the family from rural Damascus had spent all their life savings and found themselves penniless and without a home. But determined not to give in to despair, Momena reached out for help.

A friend of hers had mentioned a programme offered by the Al Nada Association, a Damascus-based nonprofit that partners with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to provide startup grants of up to $1,500 for small businesses.

"At a time when no one would help us even by lifting a finger, I found someone ready to give me such a generous grant and helped me start my own business," Momena said. "I couldn't believe it at first, I couldn't believe it even after I started!"

After setting out her business plan with association staff, the seed money they provided allowed her to set up a small salon in Damascus. She now has a barber's chair, a counter to set out her rollers and hair products, and there is even a television for her clients to watch.

After working for several months, Momena is back on her feet. Financially independent with the income from her small business, she has rented an apartment for her family outside the collective shelter where they lived for more than two years, and which felt to her like a grave.

"Finding out that there are people out there who are willing to help is what truly gave me the will power to go on," she says. "Now I am optimistic for a better future for my children."

More than 6.6 million people have been displaced within Syria since fighting erupted in March 2011. Many like Momena and her family face extreme economic hardship. But with a fragile truce in place, and backing to start over, there is also some hope.

UNHCR's Small Business Grants programme gave a second chance to 290 displaced people within Syria last year, enabling them to open business ranging from hairdressing salons like Momena's to grocery stores and vehicle repair workshops.

This year, as Syria marks five years of bitter conflict with a pause in the fighting, UNHCR aims to expand its reach by more than a third to benefit 400 people.

"The start-up small business grant programme plays an irreplaceable role in boosting the self-reliance of those who lost everything they had," said Marie Therese Chakbazof, Associate Community Service Officer at UNHCR Syria, noting that nearly three million Syrians have lost their jobs during the crisis.

"It also aims to improve their standard of living by developing their skills and enhance their income generating capacities," she added.

The grant, and the positive changes it has brought about, is also welcomed by Momena's husband, Abu Mohiyideen.

"We stayed for two and a half years at the shelter, but for me it felt like 30 years. My family was going through hardship while there was nothing that I could do," said Abu Mohiyideen, who is sick and unable to work. "I'm very grateful for what we have now."

To watch a video of others benefitted by the programme, please click here.

By Shaza Shekfeh in Damascus, Syria