Za’atari in northern Jordan is the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world. With no running water or electricity, conditions are difficult and cramped. At its peak, the makeshift houses have sheltered 150,000 people fleeing war.
Despite half of the residents being female, many struggle to gain employment, contending with out-of-date work permits and societal norms that dictate they stay in a domestic role. But a number of industrious women have managed to run thriving businesses at the camp – including Asma, who arrived at Za’atari in 2012 at the age of 18. With no formal schooling and with two young daughters in tow, she turned to storytelling as a source of joy, education and enterprise.
“When I was young, I loved to read, but we did not have many books at home,” she says. “I would read anything around me, including medicine leaflets and banners in the street. I also used to borrow books from my father – he was an Imam at the mosque, and most of the texts that he owned were about religion.”
In 2014, Asma joined an initiative called I Love Reading, where she began to narrate books to children to teach them literacy skills – something she also started doing at her daughter’s nursery the year after. “Reading stories was a turning point for me,” she says. “I was living a traditional life as a housewife, where I was expected to cook, clean and raise children, and I used to hate that ritual. However, the programme opened many doors for me, and introduced me to new people.”
At the time, not many children at the camp attended school, but Asma hoped to inspire them to gain an education through books. “I thought maybe if the story attracted them, and if the pictures grabbed their attention, they would want to keep reading – and maybe they would be keen to attend school so they can read stories,” she reflects.
Her greatest motivation was to encourage young women to equip themselves with information while at home, “because girls are deprived from school and are expected to get married eventually”. She also launched two programmes aimed at adolescent girls: Be Yourself, which encourages participants to write about themselves and gain a sense of their voice, and The Tale of a Picture, which involves finding a picture they like and writing something descriptive about it.
As a result, Asma has noticed a shift in the games children play in the street. What were once “violent” reenactments of war – “because parents were only discussing stories about war and the TV was only showing war” – their play became happier. “They learnt new words and phrases through the stories that had positive messages,” she explains.
Initially, it was difficult to get children to come, but eventually Asma amassed such a large group – of around 100 – that her home could no longer accommodate everyone and she had to ask her husband to extend their indoor space. “It made me happy knowing that people around me were supporting me. Every challenge gave me strength and motivated me.”
Asma’s story is one of three from the Za’atari camp that feature in an inspiring new book, 25 Million Sparks, which chronicles the phenomenon of refugee entrepreneurship across the globe and highlights the value such women bring to their local communities and economies. At the time the book was written, 82.4 million people had been forced to flee their communities because of war, violence or persecution; since the war in Ukraine began, the crisis has worsened even further, with the number of refugees rising by 1.4 million.
“Even though we live in tough conditions, and we don’t have simple things that others have, like water and electricity, we can’t deny that the situation is getting better here,” says Asma, who believes strongly in the power of entrepreneurial ingenuity to bring about change for the better. “Now, if the young girls in the camp are facing a problem, they know they can come to me. I always say, ‘Nothing is impossible as long as you work for it’, because although I started a family at an early age and I didn’t go to school, I did not give up. I want to push all women to go after their dreams.”
‘25 Million Sparks: The Untold Story of Refugee Entrepreneurs’ by Andrew Leon Hanna (£14.99, Cambridge University Press) is published on 16 June. With thanks to Rana Sabha and Natalie Abu-Eisheh, Save the Children Jordan
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