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How a Syrian Refugee Started a Food Business With CARE


Fatima’s kitchen is quiet. It’s six o’clock in the evening, and sirens are wailing to signal the onset of curfew. The streets of Amman are deserted, storefronts are shuttered, schools and mosques are empty, the border is sealed. Anyone who leaves their home before 10 o’clock the following morning will be arrested. Thousands who have attempted to defy curfew have been taken by roving military patrols.

To Fatima, being trapped at home isn’t really the hardest part—it’s the uncertainty of being able to afford rent and food on a steadily dwindling income. But she is prepared, hopeful even. This isn’t the first crisis she’s lived through.

In 2013, Fatima abandoned her home in Daraa, traveling 60 miles south to Amann—Jordan’s capital by the border. The desert city she was born in had become known as “the cradle of the revolution” after a group of young boys spray painted “the people want to topple the regime” on a building. The boys were detained and tortured by the police, sparking widespread protests against the Assad regime. Indiscriminate bombing, shelling, and airstrikes began tearing through Daraa, leaving the birthplace of the revolution an open air grave.

“There was no place that was safe. There was nowhere to go where we could feel protected,” Fatima recalls. “The best thing for us to do was to leave. All of my relatives and everyone I knew. We all left. We didn’t bring anything with us.” Despite the city’s collective flight, it was every family for themselves. Fatima took all of the money she had—500 Jordanian dinars, an overnight bag, and her five children with her. Birth certificates, photo albums, furniture and family heirlooms were left behind “because we thought this was temporary,” says Fatima. “We thought this was only going to be for a few weeks or months, not years.” Eventually, the news that her home had been destroyed met her in Amman.

One of 12 million displaced Syrians worldwide, Fatima arrived in a city not unlike the one she fled. Syrians share the same language, culture, climate, and food as Jordanians, so resettlement isn’t like moving to another country. Additionally, like many others in the region, Fatima already had family living on both sides of the porous border. But when it comes to sharing resources and labor, the cord of tension between refugee populations and local citizens tightens with each new arrival.

Once she settled in Amman and began looking for work, Fatima was met with restrictive Jordanian labor laws controlling how refugees are to earn an income—irrespective of expertise, education, and work experience. Limited work permits make employment difficult to secure, and employer sponsorship is required. The few jobs that are permitted tend to be in agriculture, construction, and hospitality, where the wages are low and work is physically demanding. With most occupations barred from her reach, Fatima thought about her options. She knew she would have to start small, working within her own home. She knew she could make and sell stuffed kibbeh.

Before the war, the hillsides of Daraa were blanketed in wild herbs. An untrained eye might mistake them for weeds, but Fatima knows each by name and culinary usage. Some are familiar: lemon balm, chamomile, sage, marjoram, dandelion greens; others aren’t as easily translated. While the plants have escaped cultivation in the arid climate of southern Syria, women from the countryside routinely forage them. At least, they used to.

Fatima’s grandmother, a local midwife, brought her to these hills as a young girl to gather herbs and to share her encyclopedic knowledge of the local flora and its medicinal properties. “I would watch her make different blends out of wild herbs. I saw how women would visit her, take the herbs and get better,” Fatima explains. Traveling with her grandmother on midwifery visits piqued Fatima’s interest in becoming a doctor, but shortly after turning fourteen, she was married. “It wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do,” Fatima says in retrospect, but it was the custom. Unable to formally study traditional medicine, she turned to medicinal plants to continue her own learning.

Now, instead of curative herbal blends, Fatima develops recipes. She first started selling jars of makdous door-to-door, but the income wasn’t enough to keep her afloat, let alone expand. When she learned from her neighbors about CARE, a nonprofit organization and community center that had a financial assistance program and small business grant for refugees, Fatima applied for both. She wasn’t expecting much, being one of thousands in the same predicament, tapping into the same resources. But within a few months, she learned that her application had been approved.

The cash assistance, a small sum of 130 dinars, took nearly three years to arrive, but the training program started immediately. Fatima got to work developing a viable business plan and received 1,200 dinars in grant money. With it, she purchased a freezer, a new refrigerator and a food processor—the basic equipment she needed to increase production and finally pay herself a living wage.

Everything she knew went into perfecting her stuffed kibbeh, which is typically composed of ground meat, spices, and bulgur wheat formed into an oval and deep fried. It’s a popular mezze dish across the Levant and despite its ubiquity, Fatima felt she could make it her own. She’s one of the few artisans who makes vegetarian kibbeh—exchanging lamb for peas, potatoes, and carrots—something she started tinkering with after receiving requests for vegetarian food during Lent and other meatless holidays. Now, it’s her niche product.

Armed with the tools needed to scale up production, confident in her recipes, and supported by two other cooks, after years of near-constant labor, Fatima finally had a moment to pause, breathe, and look around. “I started seeing women who were vulnerable and in the same position that I was in when I first came here.”

Nearly 30 percent of Syrian refugee households in Jordan have a woman at the helm, yet only nine percent of those women earn an income. The average family has a full house, so starting a business from home is logical but not without challenges. There just isn’t enough space, and information about the grants and training needed to grow isn’t widely accessible. Fatima returned to the food relief lines she once depended on, and began talking to other women.

“I would tell them,” Fatima says, “Why don’t you create your own business? Even if it’s small, you can manage at the beginning and then you’ll grow with time.” She began hosting free trainings in her home and at CARE centers for other aspiring businesswomen. Some brought plans for Arabic desserts, while others wanted to make intricate hand-engraved chocolates. And to those without a plan? Fatima advised those living near hillsides where jute mallow grows wild to pick and bundle the widely eaten bitter greens for sale. For every plan, her refrain is simple: “Start with something small and from that, you can grow. Just start.”

Demand for homemade foods is generally strong in Amman, according to Taghreed Saeed, the program coordinator of economic empowerment at CARE Jordan. But the economic situation makes it difficult for entrepreneurs to stand out. There are nearly as many purveyors of makdous and kibbeh as there are women named Fatima, which is why organizations on the ground have pivoted to include market analysis and branding strategies as part of the trainings.

Navigating Jordan’s legal regulations is already difficult enough for small food businesses, but no one, Saeed assures me, could have anticipated how the pandemic would flatten all burgeoning sense of possibility. In early March, Fatima sold 400 pieces of kibbeh each day, mostly to famous restaurants in Amman. Now, she cannot legally sell anything. Though she has received a few under-the-table orders, Fatima won’t be fulfilling them. She’s playing it safe. The kibbeh can wait.

Fatima is fasting for Ramadan, and thinking about food, when we speak this past April. “We are people who love food, so this would have usually been a really busy season because of the big meals that people eat at sundown,” she explains. Ramadan is a season of reflection for Muslims around the world and each day is bookended with two distinct meals; the first, hurriedly eaten before sunrise and the second, leisurely shared between families after sunset. Under curfew, though, the celebration of breaking fast is subdued without friends and neighbors to partake. “Before the lockdown measures started, I was booked up for the entire month. I’ve gone from having business to nothing,” sighs Fatima. “But this is something that has affected everyone, not only me.”

The indefinite hiatus hasn’t stalled Fatima’s forward motion. A spry 50-year-old, her wheels keep turning even if they’re spinning in place. “Some people say that with my age I’ve reached a place where I can’t do more,” she says, as the curfew siren gives way to the evening call to prayer. “I’ve lived through a lot of tragedy, but I don’t let sadness get to me. I have ambition to keep creating.”

Has food pulled you out of a difficult time before? Tell us about it in the comments.

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