Portrait of Syrian refugee Layla amongst okra flowers.
© Roland Schönbauer
Location icon Jordan

Meet the Syrian refugee turned farming entrepreneur

When Layla fled to Jordan, she knew nothing about agriculture. Today, she runs a successful business. 

After fleeing from southern Syria to Jordan with her family, Layla Mahmoud Malkawi struggled to find an affordable place to live. She eventually found an apartment in a small village near Irbid, Jordan’s second largest city, but it was still too expensive. 

“I could not pay the 200 Dinar ($AUD 414) to the landlord – 100 for rent and 100 as a deposit,” she explains.

The landlord proposed a solution that turned out to be a game-changer for Layla: she could pay her rent and earn some extra income by working in his okra fields.

Tens of thousands of Syrian refugee families living in Jordan are struggling to find work and meet their rental payments. The combined impact of COVID-19 on Jordan’s tourism-dependent economy and a sharp increase in the cost of living have pushed a worrying 88 per cent of Syrian households into debt, according to UNHCR’s most recent vulnerability survey.

The same survey found three out of ten refugees living outside camps had been threatened with eviction due to falling behind on their rent, up from nine per cent in 2018.

Fortunately, Layla is not among them. Inspired by her experience harvesting okra, she convinced other landowners to let her farm their land.

“It all started with onions because the price was good,” she says. “I produced 35 tonnes.” 

Later, she planted okra, then added peas and chickpeas, the main ingredient for hummus. 

“I also found an acre of land in the Jordan valley where the harvest is earlier, which helps me achieve higher prices.”

Her success is the result of her own initiative, hard work and UNHCR’s small business support. 

Layla and workers carrying away boxes of okra.
©Roland Schönbauer
Layla and workers carrying away boxes of okra. © Roland Schönbauer

One customer, Mohammad Bani Issa, buys from Layla every week. 

“I’ve been coming here for two years, and I sell this in the central vegetable market in Amman,” he says as he weighs okra, before emptying it onto a plastic sheet to assess the quality and size. Within minutes, the two strike a deal and Mohammad loads 100 kilos of okra into his van for resale.

Layla has big plans for her enterprise. “I want to grow,” she says. She already works with 10 regular farm labourers – all Jordanians – and employs up to 30 at the height of the season. Experienced farm labourer Mohammad Jehad says he prefers working with Layla over his previous employers.

“With her, my job is regular, not occasional as before.” For him, it makes no difference that Layla is a refugee. “She is part of our community,” he says.

Despite her success, Layla remains humble and determined. 

“I do this because I need to take care of my family,” she explains. Her husband has only found occasional work in a local supermarket and her three children, aged 13, 19 and 21, depend on her support.

Finding employment is a struggle for refugees. They are restricted to working in five sectors, including agriculture and construction. These can be difficult industries for women, culturally and practically –  particularly for single mothers with young children. 

Layla benefits from a flexible work permit allowing her to work for different landowners. UNHCR, alongside partner organisations Jordan River Foundation and Blumont, is helping refugees like Layla set up small businesses by offering training, mentorship and seed funding. Home-based businesses such as food processing, handicrafts and tailoring are particularly helpful for women, as they allow mothers to meet their family obligations while earning an income.

“It is heart-warming to see refugees who get the opportunity to thrive in a new environment and contribute to the local economy,” says UNHCR’s Head of Irbid Field Office, Subin Cho. “I am impressed by the power with which Layla has restarted her life. Now she is a respected farmer whose initiative helps several families in the area to find an income.”

The Leading Women Fund supports refugee women who are the heads of their household and struggling to meet rent payments and buy food. Your donation provides cash assistance, giving them more dignity and independence as they rebuild their lives.

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