Why We Give Refugees Business Grants Instead of Loans

We enter the raw concrete courtyard through a metal gate. Curious, barefooted children screech in excitement, then run to stand in the shadow of their grandparents.

Little puddles of water glisten in the sun—the floors have just been washed and aren’t yet dry. This home in a nearby refugee camp, a couple tiny rooms lining a small courtyard, is impeccably clean. So clean that it takes a minute to actually register the space.

There is almost nothing here.

From where I stand in the center of the courtyard, I can see one sleeping mat, a manual clothes washer (we learn that it’s shared with three other families), and a single broken burner for cooking. That’s it.

“I keep hearing this word, debt. It seems that so many families we interview about empowerment projects talk about debt. Is that a big problem here at the camp?”

“Yes, it is a problem.” Miriyam doesn’t have to think about her answer.

Residents of this refugee camp in northern Iraq have no money, so they buy food on credit at local shops, racking up hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars of debt.

“And if they can’t pay it back?”

“Then they have to sell their things to pay it back.”

I think about the little home with the sparkling courtyard. I think about the family who lives there, sons who work at day-labor construction jobs and don’t earn nearly enough to keep their extended family fed. I think about their mounting debt at the local grocery shop.

And I think about the fact that there is not one thing left in that house to sell.

Camp residents had normal lives back home in Syria. They had businesses and jobs. They had homes, gardens, and a favourite mug in the kitchen cupboard. They had “their” restaurants, where servers knew their orders by heart.

Now, those in need borrow money on the hopes of finding a job in the future. It sounds reckless, but there is little choice for those who can’t find work.

There is no financial safety net for them. There are few jobs to be had for refugees when the local population is already suffering the effects of a long-running financial crisis.

Iraq is dependent on oil income—95% of government revenue comes from the oil sector. The low price of oil, in addition to the high cost of fighting a war against ISIS, and the expense of managing more than three million refugee and displaced families has been devastating to the economy.

The poverty rate has risen to 30%. Civil servants in the Kurdistan region go for months at a time without receiving salaries. Around 10% of the population live below the poverty line, defined by the World Bank as $87 per month.

You cannot live here on $87 per month.

In the absence of family networks, which war stole from them, refugee families are left to become beggars in their own neighborhoods—crushed under the weight of poverty.

Empowerment small business projects are designed to restore dignity, to lift displaced families out of poverty—not to add to the weight of debt.

That’s why we provide empowerment grants instead of loans. For many, a small investment is all that’s needed to launch a business.

Seamstresses receive a sewing machine and cash to buy scissors, thread, and anything else needed to start out. A $150 grant  can mean the difference between being able to earn a living or falling deeper into debt. For men like Marwan, $300 worth of sheep can be grown into a flock that will support a family.

The grants you provide supply the initial equipment and supplies and get new business owners off and running.

Refugee families, so many of whom are at the lowest end of the economic spectrum, will never be able to save the money needed to start a business.

You bridge the gap with empowerment grants, allowing displaced Syrians and Iraqis to see beyond poverty, to create work for themselves and lift themselves out of the hopelessness of debt—instead of banking on the hope of finding a job sometime in the future.

See beyond poverty. Empower refugees in Syria and Iraq to start new businesses and support their families.

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