From the rubble of Syria's economy, an inspiring small-business story emerges

UNRWA microfinance recipient, Hanan, Jaramana camp, Damascus, Syria © 2017 UNRWA Photo by Wasim Al-Masri

Hanan Odah, UNRWA microfinance recipient, in the Jaramana camp, Syria Image: UNRWA

Pierre Krähenbühl
Commissioner-General, UNRWA
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Hidden almost literally under the rubble of the civil war in Syria is an economic success story that is rarely told.

Hanan Odah is a 30-year-old Palestinian refugee living in Jaramana refugee camp in Damascus. Her husband was killed in the conflict, but she refused to submit to despair and become dependent on her parents. She supports her displaced family of three through a thriving micro-enterprise venture.

Hanan founded a stationery and perfume business, which she runs from the family house that was badly damaged and which she rebuilt.

Young, innovative and courageous, she is living proof that as large businesses have collapsed, small-scale enterprises can survive and even thrive in the markets opening up at the grassroots.

As senior leaders and key business figures gather at the World Economic Forum in Jordan this week, a thought should be spared for Hanan who lives the ideals they champion.

Her work should resonate at their meeting, which seeks to “stimulate entrepreneurship”, and map out a path to an “inclusive economic transformation”.

Fighting back

In July 2014, violence engulfed Hanan’s home and business. She fled in fear of her life. Then, after two years living hand-to-mouth with her family, she moved back into her house, which had been damaged and completely looted.

Hanan immediately set to work rebuilding. She obtained her first loan from The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East in 2016. This added to Hanan’s working capital and she expanded her product base, which increased her income. She is now looking to expand her business further and increase brand recognition.

According to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, deindustrialization has inflicted US$254.7 billion in economic damage on Syria. In 2015 alone, GDP loss was US$163.3 billion. As a result of the economic collapse, more than 85% of Syrians were living in poverty by the end of 2015, with more than 69% of the population living in extreme poverty and barely surviving. Nearly three million jobs have been lost and unemployment is now over 50%.

With recent donor funding, in particular US$1 million from the European Union, we have expanded our micro-finance outreach. Always searching for new openings, we have been actively mapping new locations of internally displaced people in order to reach the Palestinian refugees we serve, and to deliver loans where market opportunities open up.

Businesses return

Al Huseniya near Damascus is a good illustration.

Its inhabitants fled when armed groups seized the town. But, in the second half of 2015, when insurgents were driven out, people began to return. With the improved security situation, and the return of Palestinian refugees, UNRWA dispatched two microfinance specialists to Al Huseniya.

Within a year, dozens of business plans were vetted, market risks were assessed, and 100 loans were issued, helping to secure a better standard of living for returning refugees. The loans enabled them to generate income, repair and furnish their homes, lift themselves and their families out of the poverty trap, and away from aid dependency. Across Syria, UNRWA’s Microfinance Department disbursed a staggering 9,520 loans in 2016, worth nearly US$2 million.

We can build on this track record and expand with the support of donors and partners.

I pay tribute to the local UNRWA staff, who have achieved all this against the odds. During the Syria conflict, the majority of UNRWA’s microfinance offices have been damaged. And the war has significantly affected our staff and their families.

Prior to the conflict, we had 130 staff in six offices across the country. Most were from the now devastated Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, where our largest microfinance office was located.

Example of hope

Over half of our staff have fled the country and a third have been displaced. Against the odds, we seek to retain staff as circumstances allow and have reassigned personnel to new branches as opportunities were found.

Our loans have also developed flexibly in response to the evolving conflict. There are currently five products that are designed to address the deepening emergency situation in Syria, and help Palestinian refugees re-build their houses and maintain stable incomes for themselves and extended families. This is no small achievement as war rages relentlessly in the country.

UNRWA’s microfinance work is a rare but significant example of hope in the country.

As leaders at the World Economic Forum strive to shape innovative, flexible, and inclusive responses to the most traumatic conflict of our age, I hope they might find Hanan’s story revealing, instructive and perhaps even inspiring.

She is an extraordinary young woman, who, in the face of untold adversity is bravely transforming her community from within, one business plan at a time, which is what the World Economic Forum, at its best, strives to achieve.

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