Refugee businesses promise brighter future for Azraq camp

Dozens of aspiring Syrian business owners showcase wares and services at a bustling souk and hope it becomes a permanent feature of camp life.

Mohammad, 42, from Syria's southern Dara'a governorate arranges artificial flowers in colourful displays in his temporary shop in Jordan's Azraq refugee camp. The shop is part of a week-long marketplace opened to mark the camp's first anniversary. UNHCR officials hope the market will become a permanent fixture in the camp by the end of June.  © UNHCR/C.Dunmore

AZRAQ REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan, April 30 (UNHCR) - Syrian residents at Jordan's Azraq refugee camp were given a taste of things to come on Thursday, as they bought clothes, sweets and falafel and queued for haircuts at a temporary marketplace opened to mark the camp's first anniversary.

Dozens of aspiring Syrian business owners showcased their wares and services at the bustling souk, and expressed the hope that the week-long market would soon become a permanent feature of camp life.

In one of the stalls, 42-year-old Mohammad from Syria's southern Dara'a governorate was busy selling brightly coloured bouquets of artificial flowers that he had arranged himself. A heating engineer by trade, he started creating the elaborate floral displays at home when the conflict in Syria meant he could no longer travel for his job.

"It started out as a hobby, but people really liked them so I started doing it as a business back in Syria," he tells visitors from UNHCR. He is convinced that there is enough demand in the camp to make it a viable business, with his creations selling for between three and 10 Jordanian dinars (US$4-US$14).

"Even though refugees don't have a lot of money, they love my flowers. They help to make the shelters feel more cozy and they're a treat for the eyes," Mohammad said. "What's going on here in the market shows that the camp can have a bright future, it's just a shame that it's only for seven days."

Talks are currently taking place with the Jordanian camp authorities to open the marketplace on a permanent basis, and the head of UNHCR's Azraq office, Roberta Montevecchi, said she hopes this can happen by the end of June.

"Definitely it will be a turning point in the life of the camp and for the refugee population. The marketplace can be a huge gathering point, not just for the souk, but also for cultural and recreational activities," she said.

Another major milestone for the 17,780 residents and potential businesses in the market will be the electrification of the camp, which Montevecchi says is planned for completion by the end of this year.

At another of the stalls, Muhannad, 39, is doing a roaring trade offering haircuts and close shaves with a cutthroat razor for a dinar (US$ 1.40) a time. Originally from Damascus, he's been cutting hair since he was 12 years old. He trained at several salons before opening his own shop back in Syria.

Having left everything behind when he fled Syria two years ago with his wife and two children, Muhannad was given 20 dinars by UNHCR shortly after he arrived in Jordan to buy new equipment and began cutting hair in his shelter, initially in Za'atari camp and now at Azraq.

He says being able to open his own salon at the market would give his life in the camp greater meaning and purpose. "I've already had more than 10 customers this morning, and they were all so happy that there was finally a barbershop. I love dealing with people and they always share their stories and their secrets."

Muhannad is not the only barber in Azraq, but he says he isn't concerned about the competition. "I know one other guy here who also cuts hair, but I'm the master, he's not as good as me."

By Charlie Dunmore at Azraq Refugee Camp, Jordan