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Finance & Innovation

Syrian refugees using innovation to improve their lives

By: Mary Kate Macisaac

Aeed Aloosh, 50, sits in the relative cool of his shelter, protected from the sweltering desert temperatures outside.  Using found materials, he and his sons have improved the insulation in their shelters, adding a layer to better protect them from the heat and cold, blocked spaces where winter rains were leaking in, and built cupboards to store their few belongings.  They have shaded their windows from the sun, while still allowing a flow of air through the small living space.  It is nothing compared to their home in Syria, but they have done what they can to make it comfortable.  Outside the shelter, he maintains a small vegetable garden with tomatoes, spinach, and corn, among others.

Syrian Refugees using innovation to improve.JPGAEED ALOOSH, 50

Fahad, his son-in-law, is holding a solar lamp that he rewired to create a longer lasting light source. “Need is the mother of all invention,” Aeed says. “If NGOs and the UN cannot give us everything, why should we not invent?” He laughs, but acknowledges they have no other choice.  His family is fortunate. “We are builders and electricians,” he says proudly.

While many refugees once charged their smartphones at CARE’s community centre, Aeed and his sons had rewired solar cells and, placing them on their roofs, could collect enough power to charge their smartphones while providing around-the-clock power for solar lamps, as well.  “Before, the lamps would only work for a few hours, and couldn’t charge a phone –  we have 24 hour lighting, if we want.”

Donors have since replaced the old solar lights with a higher quality version allowing most families to charge their phones at home now, camp management says.

“Still, it’s not enough energy for a fan,” Aeed’s daughter says. “That’s what we need now.”

Throughout the camp, one can witness the ingenuity of people who, with few resources, look for solutions to their problems. Whether in rewiring solar cells, building grocery carts, or planting a garden and sharing the seeds, camp residents are investing time in making their lives better.  “Syrian refugees understand the need for innovation better than anyone,” says Marten Mylius, CARE’s team leader in Azraq camp.  “I’m not surprised when I see how they combine their skills and ingenuity to improve their lives.”

In Syria, before the war, Aeed’s family maintained two businesses, in construction and electrical, in addition to being farmers.  They also had a tire repair business.

“I studied electrical and passed it on to my sons. With such a big family, I had no need to hire anyone else,” he laughs.  Like him, all of Aeed’s sons attended school, but because of the war they could not complete secondary school.

While education is important, Aeed emphasizes the role of learning a vocation.  “My sons didn’t need to study at a college – they learned to be electricians from me.”

In Syria, many youth acquire vocations through informal apprenticeship – whether barbers, tailors, or like Aeed and his sons, electricians, mechanics.“In Syria, I managed our businesses, and my sons worked for us. There was enough work for everyone in the family.  But here, there’s hardly any work.”  Under Jordanian law, work permits are difficult to acquire for refugees and certain sectors are protected.

In a recent assessment of skills and market opportunities in Azraq camp, CARE found that many young Syrian men living in Azraq possess the skills needed for a variety of construction and maintenance jobs around the camp. However, a track for advancement, including apprenticeship opportunities for unskilled and younger workers could greatly benefit refugees living there.

“Syrian refugees in the camp, particularly the youth, would greatly benefit from the chance to contribute to their livelihoods,” says Mylius.  “They are eager to build a better life for themselves and they don’t want to depend on handouts or see their skills dulling away.  It would be of mutual benefit to refugees in Azraq camp, the NGOs and the Government of Jordan, to invest in apprenticeships and encourage refugee-led business initiatives.”

Aeed registered for Azraq’s incentive-based volunteer (IBV) program, which is managed by CARE in coordination with UNHCR and other participating NGOs.  Five months later, he is patiently waiting to be matched with a volunteer position. More than 4000 people have registered their resumes in the system.  So far 1,800 have found placements.  Working on a rotating basis, approximately one million dollars has been injected into the Azraq economy by the IBV program.

Aeed’s family is from rural Damascus where they had a small house and farming land.  “We were dependent on our own food.  We never needed a grocery story.  We had cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant. If I had more seeds here, I’d never go to Sameh mall, (the camp’s only food distribution point).”

Six month ago, Aeed’s family was living in a Jordanian host community, but following cuts to food assistance and health care, he and his extended family (almost forty people), moved to Azraq Camp.

In a recent report from CARE, 80 percent of Syrian refugees living outside of Jordan’s camps said they worry about paying rent, and at least 60 percent are concerned about food. A lack of access to health care is also a serious concern.  In the fifth year of the Syria crisis, refugee families are running out of savings, and with government regulations around work permits, the many Syrian refugees struggle to earn an income.

In Azraq camp, the World Food Programme supports Aeed’s family with e-cards charged with 20JOD (or US$28) per person per month in addition to a daily bread distribution. While the family has the proper paperwork to leave the camp, they won’t.  “We don’t want to leave, not now,” Aeed shakes his head.  “It costs too much to live outside”, he says with a shrug.

“All we have right now are our UN registration papers and a ration card.  That is all,” Aeed says pensively.  Um Omar, Aeed’s wife, points to one of their younger sons, Hussein. “He’s 17 years old, he could do anything. There are so many young men like him who are strong. They should be working, not remaining idle. He wants to keep himself busy, but there is little to do.  There is no work.”  While their son, Hussein, is eager to find employment, volunteers must be 18 years.

“I will not give up,” Aeed says assertively. “I will try until I get what we need.  We all need work.”