Tailor made: Economically empowering Syrian refugee women

Published on Oxfam America's Medium

Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan is the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world. With a population of almost 77,000 refugees, over half of whom are women and girls, the camp has gradually evolved from a small collection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) tents into a caravan settlement due to the decade-long conflict taking place in Syria.

Starting in 2014, the camp switched out its temporary UNHCR tents to movable caravans, creating a more durable shelter setting for the refugees. Today, the camp is self-sustainable with providing its own public services like recycling and waste management, education, and electrical grid network.

Earning an income is a struggle for the residents of Za’atari due to the limited work opportunities in Jordan for those with a refugee status. Refugee women face an even greater barrier to accessing the few economic opportunities available due to cultural barriers and gender related stigmas. Short term jobs created by humanitarian organizations like Oxfam are one of the main forms of employment in Za’atari camp and allow refugees to gain valuable skills while earning a source of income. Most of the work opportunities created in the camp are typically socio-culturally acceptable for men..

To help tackle the working challenges many women face in the camp, Oxfam, created the Lel-Haya project to provide a safe, friendly workspace for women to earn a small income and learn long-lasting skills, by upcycling the discarded UNHCR tents into fashionable tote bags. The durable canvas material that once provided shelter for thousands of refugees is waterproof and sturdy, making the bags reusable and durable.

Coming in three different sizes, each tote bag is a handcrafted, one-of-a-kind piece with its own serial number to ensure the profit made from the bags goes back to the group of women who produced the product.

Oxfam recruits the refugee women who voluntarily apply for the opportunities through public advertisement campaigns within the camp community. To be eligible, the refugee women must undergo a skills training program, where they learn the design, cut and sewing process that goes into each bag. During the training, each woman makes nine bags each — three bags for each size — to officially be put on the vocational list that can be called on to produce bags when orders come in from both the Za’atari community and the internet.

Suha is one of the program’s sewing trainers. She teaches the new refugee women entering into the program the skills needed to succeed.

“Syrians have already experienced so much hardship due to the conflict, but we are strong people and have hope for the future. We want to work hard and establish ourselves. The Lel-Haya project allows us to create unique designs that make us feel at home along with providing women opportunities to learn new skills and make an income,” she says.

Behind each handmade tote bag tells a refugee women’s story of hardship and resilience but also what’s possible when you provide opportunities that empower women to thrive.

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