Syrian refugee and Jordanian women develop home-based sweet business in Irbid

As the Syria conflict enters its ninth year, refugees in Jordan show remarkable resilience.

Saja (R) and Nawal (L), both Syrian refugees, discuss the production of a cake in the kitchen in Irbid.
© UNHCR/Lilly Carlisle

The smell of baking wafts out from the lower ground floor of a community centre in central Irbid. Cookies, biscuits, cakes; just a few of the products that are being produced by a group of Syrian refugee and Jordanian women working in the space which has been transformed into professional kitchen.

Established just under a year ago, this kitchen currently provides employment for six women, four Syrian refugees and two Jordanians from the local community. Irbid, the second largest town in Jordan, currently hosts over 140,000 refugees, the vast majority of them Syrians who arrived in 2012-2013. Constituting just under ten percent of the governorate population finding meaningful ways to strengthen the peaceful coexistence between the refugees and the local population has been UNHCR key approach since the beginning of the crisis.

A lawyer by trade, Nawal, a Syrian refugee, is in charge of the kitchen and explains that it has become a lifeline for many of the women working there.

“We came from a crisis. We came with nothing so we had no choice but to work. Because of this we have broken many boundaries. I see the women who work here as leading the way for female Syrian refugees working in Jordan.”

While some 120,000 work permits have been issued to Syrian refugees in Jordan since 2016, women hold only five percent of them.  This is why there is certainly a lot to be learnt from projects like this, encouraging women to work. As Nawal states, “there are a lot of sensitivities in our community surrounding women working, but here we bring everyone together, show them the space, who they will be working with. This allays their fears and gives them confidence to start.”

UNHCR/Lilly Carlisle

Naima, a Jordanian national, checks on the baking of biscuits. © UNHCR/Lilly Carlisle

Initially supported by ILO in Jordan, the project has trained around 30 Syrian and Jordanian women, giving them the skills they need to start their own businesses. But after a change in the law in late 2018 enabling Syrian refugees to run their own home based businesses, the kitchen is now owned solely by the women themselves. Nawal and the rest of the team are making the most of the new opportunities this affords them, and have started marketing their sweets and products on Facebook.

“We deliver to many areas in Jordan, not just Irbid, we have regular orders from as far away as Madaba and Karak and even have been approached by people in Kuwait and Turkey who are interested in buying our sweets.”

But it is not only through word of mouth that they are building their customer base. As well as having their own private customers, the kitchen has also built a relationship with a local corporate sweet manufacturer, Abeedo. As part of the contract, the kitchen acts as an additional production line for the company, providing the women with a regular source of income as well as training when needed.

UNHCR/Lilly Carlisle

Saja decorates a cake which is being made for a private customer in Irbid. © UNHCR/Lilly Carlisle

Nawal jokes that there is even a bit of competition between the two. “When we first signed the agreement with Abeedo, we had to prove that we could make the sweets, so we sent a test sample to the company. When they tried them, they loved them, but could tell we had changed something in the recipe slightly. They keep asking us what it is. But we won’t tell them, it’s a secret ingredient!”

Currently producing an average 50 boxes of sweets a day, Nawal has plans to expand the kitchen and is working to train more women to be able to work with them. “We probably have room for about 20 more women to work in this space. We try and organize ourselves as much as possible, making a production line based on the different strengths of the women such as baking or decorating.”

After almost a year of the kitchen operating, the women who were part of the initial cohort have now become trainers themselves and with their busiest period of Ramadan coming up, Nawal explains that they are currently trying to train more staff to support them through the month.

UNHCR/Lilly Carlisle

Hala and Kamal, start the production of sweets and biscuits to be sent to a local sweet company. © UNHCR/Lilly Carlisle

More than 80 per cent of Syrian refugees in Jordan live below the poverty line and, as the Syrian crisis enters its ninth year, their financial resources are becoming more and more depleted. But it is the resilience shown by women like Nawal that is carrying refugee families through extreme hardship. Although some Syrian refugees are beginning to return since the Jaber, Nassib border crossing opened in October 2018, many like Nawal, Saja, Kamal and Hala are planning to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. At UNHCR, we continue to invest in their skills and capacities, supporting projects like these that encourage women to work.

For Nawal though, it is simply a question of making the most of a difficult situation and improving the lives of the women around her. “We are just trying to make the lives of our families better and of course there is nothing better than home baking.”