Syrian refugee in Jordan finds joy — and a future — in making beautiful things

Jordan.  Craft skills help Syrian refugees support their families

Zuzan Mustafa, 36, from Aleppo, Syria, fled with her husband and three children to Jordan in 2012 after the conflict spread to their neighbourhood. She uses her craft skills to help support her family. © UNHCR/Hazm Almazouni

Zuzan Mostafa has hands of gold. A Syrian woman who fled to Jordan in 2012 found that she could turn almost anything old and worn into something beautiful, helping her family earn money and rebuilding their lives in the process.

Zuzan is one of 5.7 million Syrian refugees living in neighboring countries including Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, who fled the conflict that began in 2011. Many have faced unemployment and poverty, a situation exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19.

After leaving Za’atari refugee camp, Zuzan moved with her family to Amman, the Jordanian capital. From his home, she makes cushion covers that IKEA eventually sells as part of a project run by the Jordan River Foundation, a partner of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which also sells the items in its regular bazaars.

IKEA partnered with the foundation, which established job training and other economic and social programs in Jordan in response to the Syrian crisis. Recent data compiled by UNHCR in Jordan shows that although the majority of refugees living in urban areas are employed, there is a high risk that they will fall into poverty.

Next, Zuzan tells fellow Syrian refugee and journalist Hazm Almouzoni about her work and the freedom she feels being able to provide for her family. Her story has been edited for length and clarity.

The first few weeks after our family left the Zaatari refugee camp were the most difficult. After all, we only had a couple of mattresses, some blankets, our clothes, and some savings.

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It was winter then and we couldn’t afford to rent a furnished flat. We found a cheap and empty one. There was some mold on the walls. Hand in hand with my husband, we painted it clean, fixed the broken things, and started a new life.

I needed warm winter clothes for my children. I went to the thrift store and bought some worn sweaters, unwrapped the wool and made new, trendy ones.

Children, as you know, like colorful things, so I took them with me to the bazaar to choose the colors that they liked, that made them happy.

The teachers at my children’s school loved those sweaters and asked me to make some for their children. That was how I got my first orders and started generating my first income.

Around that time, my husband, a master shoemaker, was out of work for a couple of months. He needed to prove himself to potential employers, so he bought some tools and materials and we started making women’s shoes at home.

“I learned to make shoes and my husband loved my job and encouraged me.”

At first I started helping him out of curiosity. He never asked me to help him, but we were used to helping and supporting each other. After all, we are in a foreign country and no one else would support us. There were no relatives and we both needed to work to support the family.

I learned shoemaking and my husband loved my job and encouraged me. We proved our worth at the local market where he sold the shoes, and this got him a job. The extra income we earned allowed us to buy cheap old furniture.

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The word furniture barely describes what we buy. It was a pile of corpses of wood and metal, forgotten on a roof in the rain.

Restoring the furniture by hand with a needle and thread was not easy. I had no tools, but I had my hands and the willingness to do it. So, I bought new fabric and made new covers. So I got two sets of furniture for a tenth of what new sets would cost.

  • Zuzan Mustafa, 36, from Aleppo, Syria, fled with her husband and three children to Jordan.  She puts her crafts to use to help her husband support the family.

    Zuzan Mustafa, 36, from Aleppo, Syria, fled with her husband and three children to Jordan. She puts her crafts to use to help her husband support the family. © UNHCR/Hazm Almazouni

  • Zuzan Mustafa, 36, from Aleppo, uses her skills to support her family, who now live in Jordan after fleeing Syria.

    Zuzan Mustafa, 36, from Aleppo, uses her skills to support her family, who now live in Jordan after fleeing Syria. © UNHCR/Hazm Almazouni

  • Zuzan Mustafa, 36, from Aleppo, Syria, fled with her husband and three children to Jordan.  Syrian refugees in Jordan face challenges finding work.  Zuzan was able to rely on her sewing skills to earn a living.

    Zuzan Mustafa, 36, from Aleppo, Syria, fled with her husband and three children to Jordan. Syrian refugees in Jordan face challenges finding work. Zuzan was able to rely on her sewing skills to earn a living. © UNHCR/Hazm Almazouni

The women in my neighborhood liked the way I upholstered my furniture, and even though they often mentioned that shoemaking and upholstery are men’s occupations, they asked me to restore their furniture. Upholstery became my third occupation and a new source of income, allowing me to buy a sewing machine.

Sometimes when women find out I’m an upholsterer, they get confused because they’re used to seeing male upholsterers. But I think people should do whatever work they physically can. There is no such thing as a male job or a female job.

The last nine years of my life proved something my mother used to say while teaching me sewing and knitting as a child, that mastering a trade is like holding a fortune in your hands. After all, you never know when that ship might help you survive.

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Three years ago, the Jordan River Foundation officially hired me to embroider cushions that would be sold at IKEA. Now I have a sustainable job, I am registered with social security and I feel more secure.

“There is no such thing as a male job or a female job.”

My job is to do the embroidery part of the cushion-making process, and there are other women for the extra steps.

I really enjoy this job because it suits me perfectly. It’s contract work from home. It is also official, with employment benefits.

Although the salary is not that great, having a stable income gives me something essential in the life of a refugee, which is the feeling of confidence and stability.

When I think that there are people, somewhere in another part of the world, who enjoy using the pillow I helped make, I feel that my skills are important and meaningful.

I am now more independent and make a significant contribution to meeting the financial needs of our family.

Now I exist.

Hazm Almouzoni recently participated in UNHCR’s Refugee Journalist Mentoring Programme, a project created to help refugees, internally displaced people and stateless people tell the important stories of today.

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