Empowering women through work programs in Jordan

Empowering women work program - Action Against Hunger Canada

“To tell you the truth”, says Sameera, “I found myself in this project”.

Sameera Al Salaam is from the city of Nawa, Syria.

Before fleeing to Jordan, Sameera lived a comfortable life with her husband, a construction worker, and their two children, Sajeda and Ali. “In my house, I had a little garden and a little water well. I would spend all my day doing gardening work… I had all kinds of vegetables in there.”

After the conflict in Syria began, Sameera felt increasingly unsafe in her own home. “My house was next to a military barrack. I was always scared. In the night time, I would gather most of our furniture and put it behind our door, just so I can protect my children. All the pillows and our mattresses. At night time, we could hear the sound of bullets, and one day one of the bullets went through our bathroom window. Since then I feel like my children developed a psychological condition, they were not acting normal.”

Because of this, Sameera and her husband started to make plans to join Sameera’s sister in Jordan. “I could not stay there anymore, my sister phoned me and said it is not safe for us to stay and that I should come to Jordan with my kids. There were people dying in front of us, we had to make plans to leave.” But before she could get everything arranged, in 2012 her family home was hit by a rocket and almost completely destroyed. Sameera had to flee with her husband and children in the middle of the night.

The family crossed the border into Jordan with no possessions except for the clothes they were wearing. Despite losing everything in that one night, Sameera still considers herself lucky: “Thank God, I managed to leave with my children. We escaped death.”

Sameera and her family have since resettled in the Jordanian town of Irbid. Only 20km south of the Syrian border, Irbid is host to many Syrian refugee families. Refugees living in Irbid are faced with massive socioeconomic difficulties and suffer deep vulnerabilities, in the midst of growing pressure on the Jordanian host community. There are few job opportunities in the town and many are struggling to earn a living, it is tough for Jordanians and Syrians alike.

Since moving to Irbid, Sameera’s family have tried to get back to a normal routine. Sameera’s children enrolled at school and her husband was able to find work in construction. Still, Sameera struggled to make the adjustment and found their new life difficult. She isolated herself from the outside world and would not leave her house for long periods at a time. “When I came here to Irbid, I did not know anyone… it was hard, I did not really mingle with anyone. I was scared to go out.”

In 2017, Sameera’s husband had a stroke and was no longer able to work. Without her husband’s income, the family was struggling to get by. “Since my husband became ill, I was finding it hard to buy bread,” said Sameera, who began to search for employment. With a competitive job market and Sameera’s confidence at an all-time low, she was unable to find a job. With no income coming in, things for the family got worse. Sameera and her husband could no longer afford the school bus fare for their children, meaning they had to walk 2 hours every day to get to school, and Sameera was struggling to buy basic foodstuffs.

Fortunately, Sameera came across an Action Against Hunger cash for work program in Irbid called “Waste to Positive Energy”. The project employed Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanians on a 50-day-fixed-term contract to clear up waste and litter in the local area. As well as paying the employees 12JD a day (which equates to $22-$23 CAD), the project also provided Syrian refugees with a work permit valid for 1 year, meaning the positive effects of the project would continue long after the 50-day contract ended. The project also benefited the local area, which had suffered from plastic, paper and other waste being disposed of irresponsibly.

Despite the perceived shame of waste collecting, Sameera was one of the first women to sign up to the project. “I just wanted to earn an income. Some of the women that worked with me would lie to their husbands and children because they were ashamed of what they do. Yet, when people asked me ‘what do you do for a living?’ I would tell them I collect waste. I really did not care. There is no shame in working whatsoever.” Thanks to women like Sameera, the culture of shame around waste collection has gradually been broken down in Irbid. In the first month, only 15 people were signed up to the project, but by December, 1136 people had signed up, each being able to take home a wage to feed their families.

For many Syrian refugees, this was the first time they had an opportunity to integrate into the local community in Irbid. In Sameera’s case, the project provided her with the ability to not only support her family, but to also meet new people and rebuild her confidence. “Since I worked with Action Against Hunger my personality became stronger, I met new people, and felt that people around me feel me and understand me. I finally felt relaxed when I saw how everyone tried to help, I did not feel like an alien anymore, this is why I felt relieved deep inside.”

Many of the Syrian refugees who are living in Irbid have suffered trauma and had their lives turned upside down, just like Sameera. The project brought these women together and allowed them to talk to and support each other through their experiences. Sameera said: “We were there for one another.”

During her employment, Sameera started working with Action Against Hunger project officer Sajada Saqallah on an opportunity to upcycle some of the waste they were collecting. “I always had a passion for art.”

Sameera is now part of a group of women in Irbid who meet regularly and turn waste products such as plastic and newspaper into bags, bowls, lampshades and other decorative items. They are currently refining their upcycling products, with the hope of soon being able to sell them to make extra income. In the meantime, Sameera is benefiting from spending time with the other women in her community.

Working with Action Against Hunger has not only allowed Sameera to provide for her family now that her husband is unable to, it has empowered her and given her a new sense of confidence. She may not have imagined her life would end up in Irbid, but she now feels part of the community. For Sameera’s family, they are simply proud of her for doing it. Her 15-year-old daughter Sajeda said: “Because we were facing hard times, and she was a very strong mom that was able to fight for us, I am very proud of her.”