Egypt: Helping refugee women to fend for themselves

Fatma Soleman’s small table at a special International Women’s Day bazaar in a suburb of the Egyptian capital, Cairo, was a bustle of activity as visitors admired handmade jewelry, colourful bags and gold-embroidered wallets on display.

For the past 12 years Soleman has been teaching hundreds of refugee women in Cairo how to create handicrafts and successfully sell them. “I teach women that they can do it,” she said. “I’m working to help refugees become self-reliant.”

Since she fled Eritrea 20 years ago, Soleman has been driven by a desire to move beyond the difficult life of being a refugee. “There are jobs if you want to work [in Egypt], but it depends on you,” she added.

Egypt is a signatory to the Geneva Convention for Refugees, but it bans them from seeking lawful employment, posing a survival challenging for the refugees.

Figures provided by NGO Amera, which provides assistance to refugees, show there are at least 500,000 undocumented migrants in Egypt. Of these, only 43,000 are recognized as refugees, of whom 12,000 receive a monthly allowance of US$33-66 from the UN Refugee Agency.

Soleman fled what was then part of Ethiopia when she was 17. With no educational or professional background, she took up handicrafts as a way to earn a little money. Soon, she realized that other women could do this.

“There was no programme from any NGO to teach people how to start their own business,” she explained. Even today, most educational opportunities for refugees in Cairo focus on computer and language skills.

She partnered with a well-known local NGO and started to teach women how to make jewelry. “The market was very bad, and women are in competition with Egyptian crafters,” she says. Then she started teaching her students how to approach small handicraft stores throughout Cairo, and seek business opportunities and exposure through selling at bazaars.

“We push [these women] a lot to succeed,” she says.

Popular programme

The programme grew popular with women refugees, and Soleman says she now has about 50 students, most of whom are from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan, but also from Iraq and Palestine. There are even a few Egyptian women.

With the help of five volunteers, she offers classes in crochet, glass-painting, jewelry-making and sewing. This year was also special because her programme started receiving financial help from the American University in Cairo, where the training takes place.

The university provides them with material and sewing machines, and also helps with marketing.

Still, it is difficult to earn a living through handicrafts in Cairo, since the profits are very low compared to the amount of time women put in. “People like easy work,” she said with a smile.

While work opportunities are greater for refugee women than men, many women only work as maids.

“Women don’t have protection,” Soleman added. Employers will sometimes not provide food, or will not pay them their monthly salary of US$65-80. Beyond the money, Soleman believes her programme - or any work, for that matter - also helps women move on.

“Many refugees don’t accept their life in Egypt, so they’re really depressed.” Working keeps them busy and gives them a chance to meet other people, preventing them from dwelling on their traumatic experiences, she says.

Back at her table, a customer picks up a long necklace made of large orange-and-brown beads. “How much?” she asks. “Sixty pounds,” replies Soleman, or about $10. The customer hands over the money.

She has plans for her programme, and they’re all about finding new marketing ideas, she says. “I want to sell more,” she added.

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