Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken

Dutch Diplo Talk

Listening to a female Syrian refugee

19 Jul 2017

Last week I went to Egypt and Jordan on a two-day gender trip. I met many inspiring people. One of them is Najwa.

I met Najwa in Zarqa, Jordan. She fled Syria in 2013 and has a family to support as her husband rendered disabled. She started to produce soap, a traditional profession of women in Syria and Jordan. An art that passes from mother to daughter and each woman that cares for this job, invents a new variety by mixing different herbs or spices into the natural olive oil.

Najwa received support from the Life Center in Zarqa. A safe place where women –Syrian refugees, but also Iraqi and Yemini refugees as well as vulnerable local Jordanians- get opportunities to pursue vocational as well as coping skills. Psycho-social support and day-care for children are provided as well as medical referrals when needed.

Today, Najwa is proud to be the person who oversees all soap production, sales and tuition while continuing to design natural olive oil soaps. She has found back her dignity, despite her tough situation.


In Mafraq, I listened to young Syrian refugees. Young women: eager to work, eager to be part of an active society, eager to look for opportunities in life. They participated in a female youth market assessment to identify where opportunities for (paid) work for young women are.

This youth led market assessment served a double purpose: the girls got a better understanding of the market realities while increasing their leadership skills by doing the survey. It made them aware of the requested employability skills, and the businesses got familiar with the workforce potential they hadn’t been aware of.

As part of a program of Mercy Corps, a partner in one of the projects in ‘Addressing Root Causes” these young girls – and their mothers – receive training in building relationships, conflict resolution, and interest based negotiation. When they apply these skills or when looking for employment opportunities, they face many challenges and social tensions.

In these situations, honor is perceived as easily being at stake and the protective approach of fathers and brothers may severely limit their movements and opportunities. Interaction between Jordanians and Syrians is the key to building resilient communities.

Empowering these girls and women is the basis for their active participation in society, also as refugees. By giving them these opportunities, they contribute to creating space for Jordanian-Syrian interactions. Respecting their wishes and needs, creates self-confidence. It provides them with tools to discuss even with fathers and community leaders the issues that hinder their movements and possibilities to education and participation in society.

Listening to their stories is the key to understanding the needs of these girls and women. Tapping on their strengths not only restores their dignity, but also turns them into active and productive members of their (host) society.

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About the author

Reina Buijs
Written by Reina Buijs

Reina Buijs is Deputy Director-General for International Cooperation. For eight years, she worked as head of the Health and Aids Division at the Ministry in The Hague before returning to South America in 2011 to become head of the Dutch embassy in Managua, Nicaragua.

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