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TAANAYEL, Lebanon — Taanayel is nestled in Lebanon’s picturesque Bekaa Valley, and on a hot summer day in a feebly air-conditioned room, 35 Syrian female refugees gathered at a center shared by numerous local nongovernmental organizations. They arrived that morning by bus from Salaam wa Makhaba, a refugee camp nearby.
The women are here to learn how to start their own businesses through cash grants, so that they can improve their lives and those of their families while they wait for a visa from abroad or the chance to return home safely. All have surmounted incredible obstacles to be here.
The women’s children wandered between chairs and babies slept on tables as their mothers took notes. They were completing their first week of an entrepreneurship workshop, though many had been tailors or run beauty salons at home in Syria before the war broke out.
Yet here in the Bekaa Valley, straddled between the Syrian war on the border with Lebanon and recent clashes between Hezbollah and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Al Nusra Front), and the restrictions placed on refugees by the Lebanese government, picking up where these women left off is nearly impossible.
Most of the participants came to Lebanon in the early years of the Syrian war, which began in March 2011. As the years have passed, they have grappled with the seemingly unending conflict and the severe financial hardship it has brought to them. Medical conditions go untreated, community bonds have been lost, and their children’s educations are falling apart.
Iman Janseez, 37, came to Lebanon in 2012 from Homs, where she had studied art and was raising four young children. She worries about the future. Though her husband is a qualified plumber, a back injury keeps him from working full time.
“My 16-year-old son is is thinking of leaving home,” Iman said in an interview. “He doesn’t have any opportunities in Lebanon. I am afraid of what will happen to him. I want to leave.”
The Lebanese government is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and does not guarantee employment rights to refugees. Legal employment opportunities, however, include work in agriculture, municipal cleaning and construction — seasonal jobs almost exclusively reserved for men.
The situation is especially dire for women, who face barriers not only because of their insecure status in Lebanon, but also from the sexual division of labor and gender-based violence that undermines the asylum they seek. The United Nations has maintained that women’s economic rights and independence are critical to attaining peace, but this connection is often lost or put aside in refugee camps. Basic needs take precedence over political and economic advancement.
The Near East Foundation, founded in 1915 and based in the United States, is a nongovernmental organization working to improve women’s economic opportunities. With funding from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, the foundation provides onetime unconditional grants of $850 for women to start their own businesses.
It operates throughout Lebanon, not only in the Bekaa Valley, but also in refugee camps in Akkar, a region north of Tripoli and not far from Homs. While a small number of men also receive grants — to encourage them to support the program and start their own business — 80 percent of the grantees are women.
Besides grants, the foundation also trains women on home-based business startups, business-plan drafting, bookkeeping, marketing and sales. Women are free to use the $850 grants for whatever they want, but they are strongly encouraged to use them for income-producing projects. Since the program was designed in May 2016, only one woman has used the money for something other than a business. In her case, a family member was struggling with severe kidney problems.
Will the small seed funding, Syrian women set up shop. Some do so in camps, while others create space in the homes that they rent with other families. Their clients include both fellow refugees and the Taanayel community.
Samar Janseez, 33, runs a beauty salon named Judi, after the mountain in Turkey where Noah’s ark is said to have rested after the flood. Before the grant, she threaded women’s eyebrows for extra cash, but now she has partnered with two other women who also received grants to provide a full range of services, including hair and makeup.
“I feel happy,” said Janseez, a cousin of Iman. “My clients have increased, I’m making more money, and I’ve met a lot more people because of the business.”
Starting a business, she said, has brought her closer to her neighbors in the camp. Other women echoed the sentiment, saying that they felt less isolated after going through the program together.
Fadia Bunyan, 28, was a nurse in Homs. Now, besides helping her neighbors in the camp with minor injuries and illnesses, she sells perfume. Though her husband works in construction, the amount of work he gets every month varies. They still do not make enough to send their son to a local school, which is the preference of most families. Otherwise, their children attend classes offered by the UN refugee agency or World Vision, an American-based Christian aid group.
When she can finally return home to Syria, Bunyan said she wanted to design her own scents, a skill she hoped to learn through a vocational training program, another feature of the foundation’s program.
“We don’t stop [at grants],” said Mireille Dika, the foundation’s country director for Lebanon. “Any participant who took a grant and might need vocational training to support them to take their activity to another level and increase their income, we also support them through vocational training. We deliver it or we pay the fees for them to go and attend.”
The grants, however, are modest, and the incomes small.
“It’s frustrating to run a tailoring business without the right furniture,” said Iman Janseez, who received a grant to start her enterprise. “I don’t have a table. The space is cramped and unorganized, and I worry that clients are not going to trust my work. It’s so unprofessional.”
Her husband mocks her humble salary. Yet he doesn’t want her to quit; with his back injury, extra income helps.
In fact, additional cash for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is now scarce. In August, help provided by the Lebanon Cash Consortium, which pools financial assistance from donors like World Vision, the International Rescue Committee, Solidarités International, was discontinued because of lack of funding.
Though some 30,000 “severely vulnerable” Syrian refugee families continue to receive cash from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Lisa Abou Khaled, who works for the agency in Lebanon, warned in an email that “no funds are available so far to cover the winter programme for 2017/2018. If no further funds are received, 174,000 vulnerable households cannot be covered with winter support during the cold months.”
It’s no wonder that organizations like the Near East Foundation are exploring ways to help refugees become less financially dependent.
The foundation hopes to provide more grants to enable the women to grow their businesses. The program is young, but the foundation’s history dates back to World War I, when it assisted refugees after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Besides financial grants from the State Department, it has enjoyed support from heavyweight donors, including the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Ford Foundation. The Cleveland H. Dodge Foundation finances the work the foundation is doing in Lebanon.
For now, the grant program is limited: 1,008 have been distributed so far — a tiny percentage of the number of poor refugees living in Lebanon.
Despite the need for grants, some experts question whether microfinance-type models should be implemented on a larger scale for refugees. Although cash grants, like those that the Near East Foundation provides, are definitely better than microfinance, some professionals insist, concerns remain.
Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, said that providing seed funding without conditions is a good experiment, but he remains suspicious of long-term viability.
“It’s taking what should be a public problem and rendering it as a private one,” he said in an interview. “As a long-term solution, it’s not a good idea. What’s really at stake here is whether the state itself is capable of meeting obligations to refugees. In some ways, it’s reducing Lebanon’s ability to meet its obligations.”
“It comes across as more of a handout than as part of a rights-oriented framework. I think the narrative is important,” Hickel added.
There are other obstacles. It’s illegal for most refugees to run a business. While the Lebanese government usually turns a blind eye to the small shops, occasionally municipal authorities shut down home-based businesses run by Syrians.
To decrease the likelihood that businesses will be closed, the foundation notifies local authorities of the grant program and includes members of the municipalities on the committee that selects who receives the grants. The legal issue is also one reason the program operates on a small scale.
It’s an issue that Mazen Fakhreddine, who leads the workshops, worries about while he teaches. Fakhreddine is a former Lebanese business consultant who has been conducting training programs for microfinance recipients for more than 16 years.
Another challenge teaching refugees, he said, is that the educational backgrounds of the participants ranges from illiterate to former university professors in Damascus. He works around these obstacles by incorporating photos and short videos into his lessons.
“What I hear from the ladies after the training gives me strength to keep doing this job — especially when you hear them saying, ‘You gave us hope and now we are smiling again after seven years of war in our country, Syria,’ ” he said.
“Women are the best at running a business,” he added. “I will keep doing this for the rest of my life.”
The foundation is also responding to the realities of the local sexual division of labor. The grants, Dika, the country director, said, “empower women who can’t leave their homes because of domestic commitments.”
Some women hope to start anew in Europe or North America, while others long to return to Syria. But every woman in the room, when asked if she intended to continue her business once she left Taanayel, raised her hand: yes.
Entrepreneurship is daunting anywhere, but in the Bekaa Valley, raising money and embracing the unknown are not the primary struggles.
“The biggest challenge,” as Iman Janseez put it, “is that I am Syrian.”