When Layla Mahmoud Malkawi fled to Jordan, she knew nothing about agriculture. Today, she grows tons of vegetables together with Jordanian workers every year.
After fleeing Syria to Jordan with her family, housewife Layla Mahmoud Malkawi was looking for a place to live. She found an apartment in Marhaba, a small village south of Irbid, Jordan’s second largest city, but the cost was proving beyond her means.
“I could not pay the 200 Dinar (US$ 280) to the landlord ¬– 100 for rent and 100 as a deposit,” she explains.
The landlord proposed a solution that would turn out to be a game-changer for Layla and her family: if she would help harvest his nearby okra fields, her labour would cover the rent – and beyond: Layla could make a living from selling okra.
Tens of thousands of Syrian refugee families living in Jordan are struggling to find work and earn a living to pay their rent, and the combined impact of COVID-19 on Jordan’s tourism-dependent economy and a sharp increase in the cost of living have pushed a worrying 88 per cent of Syrian households into debt, according to UNHCR’s most recent vulnerability survey.
Workers carrying away boxes of okra.
Okra being put back into a box from the plastic sheeting.
Layla, a mother of three (13, 19, 21), 52 years old, fled Syria and moved to the Jordanian countryside south of Irbid after an initial time in Zaatari camp.
The same survey found three out of ten refugees living outside camps had been threatened with eviction due to falling behind on their rent, up from 9 per cent in 2018.
Layla is not among them. The 52-year-old who fled the Dara’a region in southern Syria has reinvented herself from housewife to farmer. Inspired by her experience harvesting okra, she decided to repeat the formula, and convinced other landowners to let her work on their land.
“It all started with onions because the price was good”, she says. “I produced 35 tons.” Later, she planted okra, then added peas and chickpeas, the main ingredient for hummus, a popular dish in the region. “I also found an acre of land in the Jordan valley where the harvest is earlier, which helps me achieve higher prices.”
Her success is the result of her own initiative and hard work. “I didn’t have any training, I just learned it by doing,” Layla says as one of her regular clients parks his minivan nearby.
“I buy from Layla every week. I’ve been coming here for two years, and I sell this in the central vegetable market in Amman,” says retailer Mohammad Bani Issa as he weighs okra, before emptying it onto a plastic sheet to assess the quality and size. Within minutes, the two strike a deal and Mohammad loads 100 kilos of okra in boxes into his van for resale.
Layla has big plans . “I want to grow,” she says. She already works with 10 regular farm workers – all Jordanians – and up to 30 at the height of the season. Experienced farm labourer Mohammad Jehad says he prefers working with Layla to previous jobs. “With her, my job is regular, not occasional as before.” For him, it makes no difference that Layla is a refugee. “She is part of our community,” he says simply.
Despite her success as job creator, Layla remains humble and determined. “I do this because I need to take care of my family,” she explains. Her husband Ayman Al-Safadi has only found occasional work in a local supermarket, and her three children, aged 13, 19 and 21, still depend on her support.
Very few refugees reach a point where they are able to create jobs, but even those who simply want some employment often struggle, not least because Jordan’s economy is still reeling from the impact of COVID-19.
In an exemplary move, the government has exempted Syrian refugees from most of the fees levied on foreigners seeking to enter the labour market in five sectors open for non-Jordanians, including agriculture and construction.
Layla benefits from a flexible work permit allowing her to work for different landowners. Flexible work permits do not tie a refugee to a specific employer. “UNHCR is encouraging more refugees to get flexible work permits to get back on their feet in a protected scheme,” says Najwan Aldorgham, UNHCR’s Associate Livelihoods and Economic Inclusion Officer in Amman.
Alongside partner organizations, Jordan River Foundation and NGO Blumont, UNHCR is supporting refugees to set up small businesses by offering training, financial literacy, mentorship, and seed funding. Home-based businesses such as food-processing, handicrafts and tailoring are particularly helpful for women, as they allow mothers to reconcile family obligations with earning an income.
“It is heart-warming to see refugees who get the opportunity to thrive in a new environment and contribute to the local economy”, says UNHCR’s Head of Irbid Field Office, Subin Cho. “I am impressed by the power with which Layla has restarted her life. Now she is a respected farmer whose initiative helps several families in the area to find an income.”
Even His Majesty King Abdullah II, in an op-ed a few months ago, expressed recognition for the contribution refugees such as Layla are making to the Jordanian economy: “Jordan has realised that giving refugees the opportunity would enable them to proactively contribute to the community in which they currently live, instead of simply sitting and waiting for the time when they can go back to their homes”.