Apr 6, 2018

Iman and Ahmed: A Story of Resilience

Iman and Ahmed in front of their Falafel stand
Iman and Ahmed in front of their Falafel stand

These days, Iman and her husband Ahmed’s days are off to a busy start with a business to run and a family to take care of. Shortly after rising Ahmed heads to their falafel stand to start preparations for the day. The kiosk is located within the informal tented settlement in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon where they have resided since fleeing their home in Ghouta, Syria. Iman gets to work on tending to the children and their home. Once the kids are settled she heads to the kiosk to meet Ahmed where they get to work chopping, grinding, and seasoning their homemade falafel and kabobs for the lunch rush. Iman makes the falafel, Ahmed grills the kabobs. Right now, life is manageable, peaceful, even hopeful.

This is a major departure from the chaos and uncertainty Iman and Ahmed felt after being forced to leave their home in Syria and arriving in Lebanon with their four children in 2012. Their fifth child was born in the camp after they resettled. They could find no work after they arrived. Ahmed was badly injured due to enduring shrapnel in his leg from a bomb and Iman had severe back problems that greatly disabled her mobility. During this time Iman shared that the other women in the camp banded together to help her family, explaining that they all take care of one another and it is very much like an extended family. Also, during this time, the family racked up around $1,500 in debt, a source of great stress for both Iman and Ahmed. Anything outside the bare minimum for the children was out of the question.

When Iman was approached with the opportunity to join NEF’s livelihoods support program, Ahmed was skeptical. As they often do, project staff invited him to sit in on the first business development training so he could see that it was legitimate and safe for his wife to attend. During the trainings Iman was having extreme problems with back and was considering discontinuing the classes but NEF’s Siraj Center made special accommodations for transport to the classes. Iman explains that the training was very enjoyable for her. Even with the pain she was experiencing, she insisted on going because she says, “It made me feel good to be there learning new things and relating to the other women.” She says it raised her spirits and was a relief from the difficulties she was facing at home at that time. She said also that she didn’t even know about the $850 project grant in the beginning – she just felt that the training and coaching was building her character and made her feel like a more complete person.  

Since starting their falafel stand, Iman and Ahmed have substantially paid down their debt. Their 13-year-old daughter, Bayan, says before the business Ahmed was often angry and stressed because of his inability to work and provide for the family but since it has been up and running, the household is much more positive, everyone is less stressed. Iman says the kids were smiling for the first time in a long time and they had hope.

Beyond providing the household income, the kiosk has also helped them meet their neighbors. Iman explained that it feels great to interact with the people in their community. The kiosk has become a hub for more than just food but also for friendship, laughter and healing.

Iman preparing falafel
Iman preparing falafel
Iman with her youngest daughter Joumana
Iman with her youngest daughter Joumana

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Mar 15, 2018

Supporting Women's Economic Empowerment in Armenia

The Near East Foundation needs your support for its newest project in Armenia!

The absence of gender equality has been widely reported in Armenia not only at home but also in the workplace where women’s prospects of employment and earning are far lower compared to men. Gender inequality is most evident in rural areas, where the prospect of employment is even lower, and women are even more vulnerable due to a lack of access to services that encourage gender equality and provide additional resources to support women at-risk of domestic violence or other forms of abuse.

In December of 2017, NEF UK launched a new project – funded by the European Union – that will strengthen the capacity of local civil society organizations (CSOs) to provide services focused on improving gender equality and women’s economic empowerment in rural Armenia. These efforts build onto NEF UK’s recent work in Armenia that helped at-risk women start their own businesses and secure financial independence, while also working with CSOs to advocate for protections for survivors of gender-based violence.

NEF Project Director, Arpine Baghdoyan, who has been implementing economic empowerment programs in Armenia for many years now feels confident that, ‘’The project is a great opportunity to increase the development of social entrepreneurship in Armenia. The business models that we will work with CSO’s to create and operate, will highly improve their financial sustainability and increase their competitiveness overall.” 

NEF and its partners have found that through financial independence, women gain empowerment and the respect of their families and communities and, in turn, experience reduced violence or hostility in their homes and workplaces. As such, NEF remains committed to continuing to advocate for policies and systems that support and empower women in Armenia.

Many Armenian CSOs, including those that advocate for women’s rights and help women and children at risk, are heavily dependent on donor or government funding to operate. This means that they cannot plan their work in the long term, and during some periods they may not have the means to continue supporting women in need. NEF UK’s two-year project in partnership with the Women’s Resource Center of Armenia (WRC), will seek to change this.

The project will support 12 CSOs in Aragatsotn, Gegharkunik, Lori and Syunik Marzes to launch or further develop social enterprise activities that will fund programs that benefit women in their communities in a variety of ways. The CSOs will be trained on business operations that will directly support their work to raise awareness of women’s rights and economic empowerment. Ultimately the project will ensure the ongoing operation of CSOs supporting women’s economic empowerment and gender equality in Armenia, benefitting the lives of all those reached by those organizations. Of the CSO’s participating, Ms. Baghdoyan says, “Selected CSOs are those established based on community needs, and now they will be able to highly contribute to solution of those needs such as providing job opportunities to women.’’ The CSOs who will benefit from the project look forward to greater financial and organizational stability in the coming years, allowing them to continue their important work.

Basis NGO is one of the CSO’s who will benefit from these efforts. Founder and Director of Basis, Anna Hovhannisyan, shared her thoughts on the project saying, ‘’We hope that through this project the social enterprises will be able to provide a gender-equal and inclusive way of creating jobs and tackling social issues in our region. NEF UK’s project will be pivotal to meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development, and building good governance in our communities.’’ 

Along with supporting over 600 vulnerable women (particularly survivors of gender-based violence and women at risk of gender-based violence), NEF UK’s efforts will also engage with a number of market actors and CSOs across Armenia to promote gender equality and women’s economic empowerment.

By supporting NEF's work, you are helping to empower women in Armenia! Thank you for your support!

Dec 27, 2017

Asma's story

“It was a bad situation, to see your home fully destroyed after you had been living in it for almost 16 years; it is an extremely difficult feeling. But then you just think okay, aside from your health and the health of your children you can get through anything.”

Asma and her family are from Homs, Syria. After their home was destroyed in 2013, she, her husband, and their three children fled to Jordan where they now reside. 

Today, she and her family are financially stable and Asma is operating a small cooking business. Her prepared meals and catered goods have gained a reputation in her neighborhood and demand for her product has grown, allowing the family to pay down their debts and meet their family’s needs. Asma’s success in starting her business after participating in NEF's program is not surprising when you consider the obstacles that she has overcome to arrive at this point. 

When Asma was just 14, she was the victim of early marriage. Approximately one out of five girls across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are married before the age of 18. Gender inequality, high levels of poverty, and lack of educational opportunities for girls are all among the main drivers of this issue. Asma had her first child, a son, shortly after at the age of 15. The marriage was unhealthy and very brief. After their divorce, her ex-husband would not allow her to take custody of their son, and she was forced to leave him with her now ex-husband. She would not see him again until he was a teenager. 

“I never stopped trying and wanted to continue my life,” Asma explains as the reason why she continued her studies and then worked as a nurse for three years. She then met and married her current husband, and they built a life and a family together. They had a comfortable home and happy life until conflict began to escalate and her community started to experience raids and indiscriminate arrests of citizens. She recalls an instance when her children were sleeping and soldiers forcibly entered their home and searched it without permission; this happened two other times. Her sister was unlawfully arrested for a month, and her brother was also arrested for a brief time. Both reported torture in prison. 

Then, while away visiting her husband’s family, they received the news that there was a raid, and all of the houses in their neighborhood were destroyed. When they returned, their home was gone. They could not even enter the neighborhood to see if any memorabilia items remained because the wreckage from the bombs kept people from entering the area. 

Like the majority of the five million Syrian refugees who seek refuge in neighboring countries, Asma’s family chose not to remain in a refugee camp for more than a couple of days after arriving in Jordan. They moved into a low-income neighborhood in Jordan’s urban sprawl. Although she and her husband found informal work cleaning houses, cars, and cooking for neighbors, they were unable to earn enough to meet the family’s basic needs. Describing this time, Asma said, “The monthly money that my husband was making before was not enough to cover all of the monthly expenses. It ran out the middle of the month.” 

Asma’s neighbors who had been purchasing her prepared meals encouraged her to start her own catering business. Asma explains, “The Jordanian people were very supportive and cooperative,” and added that she feels very safe in Jordan. 

With this encouragement and her husband’s support, Asma pursued her passion for cooking and started a catering business. Through trainings, she learned how to develop a business model, market her products, interact with customers, set prices, and enter into new markets. With the project grant she received at the completion of the program, she purchased a refrigerator for food preservation, giving her as she says, the “push” she needed to get started. 

Asma’s household has seen a 50 percent increase in income from her cooking business. Her customer base continues to grow, and she says that she now needs to invest in additional equipment including a “kubeh” machine (grinder) and another refrigerator to keep up with increasing demand. 

Asma says, “I have a stronger personality now. I want to make sure my product is perfect, unique, and different from the other products in the markets.” She has gained confidence and independence, especially with regard to decision-making on where to spend money, saying, “Now if my kids ask anything from me, I can do it.” 

The family has now started to save some money for the future and emergency expenses which brings Asma and her husband great peace of mind. 

Thank you for your continued to support to make stories like Asma's possible!

 
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