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Jordan’s youth bring hope to Gazan refugees

Members of the NGO Basmitak Hatallem are providing entrepreneurial support to the small businesses at the Jerash camp

Image Credit: Sheikh Rehmatullah
Basmitak Hatallem's volunteers stock Umm Ahmad's grocery store
Gulf News

Khadija sits on a clean, cushioned divan spread over the spotless floor — a contrast to the dusty lanes of the Jerash refugee camp, locally known as Gaza camp. We meet to explore her new, entrepreneurial life a year after some university students approached her. It was Basmitak Hatallem (“Your thumbprint leaves an impression”) — an NGO set up in 2010 to support Gazan refugees in Jordan — that gradually set the wheels in motion for Khadija’s improved life.

“I started designing handicrafts for one of the projects at Basmitak, and later received the capital to buy cleaning solutions in bulk and resell them in smaller quantities,” says the mother of four. The year-long collaboration now generates a monthly profit of 45 Jordanian dinars(Dh234) in an otherwise dismal socio-economic environment, helping her manage household expenses and support her husband — a rare but rising trend in the community.

Does she wish her children to follow in her footsteps or chart a life of their own? “Parents always want their children to have a better life. I prefer that they study first and participate in the business only as a side occupation,” she says, leaving momentarily to comfort the youngest child who has a pronounced motor disorder.

Though Khadija surrounds herself with hope, conditions inside the camp show that for people living in social and political limbo, future could be as unsettling as the past.

Gaza camp was built in Jordan’s northern town of Jerash for Palestinians fleeing Gaza Strip during the Six-Day War in 1967. The original population of 11,500 has now swelled to more than 27,000, limiting space and the already scarce resources. Within this challenging milieu, Basmitak Hatallem is endeavouring to build a culture of commerce in an alienated community.

Co-founder Lina Melhem, now 26, recounts the early days of the NGO. “Basmitak was born to make a difference in the life of poor people, but the first event taught us that there was so much more we were learning from our engagement with people in the camp. What started as a team of three now boasts more than 100 active members and volunteers.”

She says camp residents not having work permits adds to the misery of a stateless existence.

Basmitak’s approach to funding small income-generating businesses is based on sound investment principles. An evaluation of the beneficiary’s family, past business reputation and willingness to commit to a project leads to a team decision to fund or forgo. The invested capital is then guarded by an unwritten clause which encourages the owner to return the sum at an unspecified date when the business makes stable returns — one of many attempts to instil commitment and responsibility. The method works: Khadija, one of the successful beneficiaries, paid up the initial capital after a year in her trade.

Other prominent ventures include refurbishing and product line expansion of a grocery store.

Chronic diabetes had kept Umm Ahmad’s husband out of work for more than three years, leaving the task of feeding a family of five to her alone. Basmitak Hatallem took charge of whitewashing the store walls and adding new products on the shelf. “This will give me an edge in the camp. Had I not increased the variety in my store, a competitor would have eaten into my revenues,” says Ahmad. “My ultimate plan is to open a falafel shop,” she adds with a grin.

Women have emerged as the most successful recipients of the aid. Mohyeeddin Tamimi, 26, co-head of business projects, corroborates this. “They are bucking stereotypes in an otherwise male-dominated economy. Their dedication and track record makes us more comfortable and willing to assist women business-owners. This is not to make any societal statements, but women of this camp make natural entrepreneurs.”

Women are not just making their presence felt in an arena that is traditionally the preserve of men, but also asserting individuality through creative pursuits. The Products and Handicrafts project works with skilled women artisans and markets unique creations in areas otherwise inaccessible without the right documents. A lively demonstration of this was a stall bedecked with thread-woven mug cozies, coasters, bookmarks and books from recycled paper that garnered high footfall at the Souq Jara street market in Amman. Proceeds from this stall were used in part to compensate designers, and the remaining channelled as re-investments for a fresh batch of handicrafts. The stall went beyond putting food on the table; it doubled as a vehicle to display the inspiring story of creativity and resolve of a neglected community.

Mohammad Abusharif, mobile apps developer and co-head of the handicrafts division, says despite a compelling story to sell, it is good quality products that take precedence. “We try selling genuinely attractive and useful products to people in the cities. Once people realise that their purchase is contributing to a noble cause, they feel happy about playing a part and even inquire about the camp. The women we work with care about having their products sold, regardless of who buys it and where. But there is much to cheer when people in big cities show an interest in their work.”

Extra dinars for families is not the only goal keeping the young volunteers busy. The future of the children of the camp is another issue they are trying to address.

Shamsuna (Our Sun) is a children-centric movement that facilitates their entry into modern education and harnesses the therapeutic power of art, music, storytelling and sports. Their latest campaign will induct 30 students of ages 8 to 11 into an English-speaking programme. While many will learn a new language, Duha Dayem, head of the programme, hopes to inculcate a positive outlook and ambition — both in short supply at the camp. “Lack of ambition is our biggest challenge. At 14, boys usually quit school to help provide for their families while education is never a priority for girls,” Dayem says. “Little interaction with people outside the camp and the stern nature of some families further restrict their understanding of the world around them.”

Is Shamsuna able to report early success? Dayem makes it clear, almost with a teacher’s disposition, that a shift in mindset is not judged the way business success is. “Their eagerness to participate in the programme is in itself a change in the right direction. Most of them now follow rules without constant rebukes, keep the environment clean and show respect while interacting with the opposite gender — simple but essential etiquettes we try to cultivate.”

Launching small businesses and educating young minds are a precursor to what Basmitak Hatallem is strategising in its board room — a trendy coffee shop in the heart of Amman. Their next big ticket project does not centre around a store or some children, but an entire neighbourhood that still bears the weariness of 1967 and the desperation that followed.

Gaza Refugee Camp Rehabilitation (GRCR) is gearing up to transform the camp’s landscape and aesthetics. Zaid Awamleh, an interior architect by day, aims to infuse urban designs in the restoration work. “The project will enhance the living conditions of Gazan refugees and have a positive effect on their overall wellbeing,” says Awamleh. “We will renovate the deteriorating roofs, and fix leaks and damaged walls. We also plan to add elements such as graffiti and children’s play area, and capture the soul of the selected neighbourhood within a theme. The best part of this initiative is that the solutions will reflect specific requirements of the camp-dwellers; they will be a part of this from the onset.”

Urban developers too may look to GRCR for inspiration. Environment-friendly design solutions such as rainwater harvesting and solar lighting are already being explored for the pilot space.

Execution of projects is subject to the NGO’s own finances and generosity of donors. In this domain too, Basmitak Hatallem resembles a visionary investment fund than an organisation at the mercy of handouts. A drive off city limits, in Amman’s picturesque Wadi Al Shita, sits a 465-square metre greenhouse. This is not a picnic spot that Anas Qolaghasi, one of the founding members of Basmitak Hatallem, drives his guests to. For now, it is a venture owned by the team to ensure consistent revenue and independently fund many programmes at Gaza camp.

But will the greenhouse suffice when branching out to newer projects? “Our best bet, apart from this greenhouse, is approaching the CSR department of organisations,” Qolaghasi says. “We are not afraid to undergo thorough scrutiny of corporates. What wins us credibility is our expertise in studying the financial requirements of a camp neighbourhood in depth and reflecting accurate requirements and cost.”

Accomplishing a change in mindset is proving an uncomfortable task at the camp. A smaller greenhouse is set up for a Gazan family, with produce prepared for sale at the local market. Tamara Khalaf, HR coordinator, winds up a long conversation with the head of the family. “They want us to fix the ridge,” she says., This is not a new request. “There is a hole in the protective canvas, but we are trying to indicate that they need to repair it on their own. This is the focus of our efforts — to drive ownership and responsibility towards their business. We don’t want them to depend on us forever.”

The team moves on to inspect the next project, hoping to end the day with a promising case. This has been Basmitak Hatallem’s drill over the years — searching for new stories of inspiration in a world caught between a tumultuous past and an unforeseeable future.

Gaza camp will mark its 50 years in 2017, amid a more recent and larger refugee crisis challenging the world’s ability to rehabilitate migrants from conflict zones. While history will record the state of apathy and infrastructural deficiencies that eclipse much of the camp, several families will owe improvement in life — even if marginal — to a group of young volunteers. In an environment beset with challenges, members of Basmitak Hatallem have become ambassadors of the outside world for those who remain far removed from it.

Sheikh Rehmatullah is a writer based in Dubai.