An opportunity to rebuild a life: How access to employment helps Syrian refugees become self-sufficient

For many refugees, employment is more than just having a job and achieving financial freedom, it is an opportunity to rebuild a life.


Despite Jordan’s generous welcoming and support of over 660 thousand Syrian refugees over the last 8 years, hosting large numbers of displaced people is a challenge in any country; placing a heavy burden on economies that are already struggling to survive, and leaving Syrians in a state of uncertainty and economic adversity.

No one feels this way more than Sleiman; a Syrian refugee living in Irbid, a city in northern Jordan where around 70 thousand Syrian refugees live.

“I feel like my hands are tied most of the time. I want to work and allow my family to live comfortably just like everyone else, but I left home with nothing, and there’s nothing that I can do about it”, he reflects.

Sleiman’s frustrations are not unusual. Back in his hometown of Dara’a, he worked as an electrician where he had a roof over his head and was able to make a decent living to provide for his wife and four children. But in Jordan, work opportunities open for refugees are scarce, and life often leaves him feeling too powerless to help. And while he does his best to try and rebuild his life, he often falls short.

Like the majority of the Syrian refugees living in Jordan, Sleiman’s family live below the poverty line and relied for many years on cash assistance from the UNHCR to survive. But with four children, a wife and a mother to take care of, it was barely enough to cover basic living expenses including food, rent and transportation.

After living in Jordan for five years, Sleiman’s family was rotated off of UNHCR cash assistance in order to make room for new households to receive support. According to him, cash assistance was a blessing because it meant he had money – albeit a small amount – regularly coming in every month even if he could not find any work opportunities.

This made it crucial for Sleiman to find a job, “any job” he says. However, the number of Syrians legally employed in Jordan is low, forcing the majority to work in the informal sector, where wages are low and conditions are very difficult and physically challenging.

As part of a partnership with UNHCR, The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in Jordan receives lists of households recently rotated off of cash assistance to target, for support accessing wage employment, skills development training, or small grants to purchase tools to work as self-employed individuals.

Sleiman’s name was on the list, and after assessing his skills and needs, DRC determined that he was eligible for support, and began with giving him a number of training courses. The trainings were aimed at increasing his ability to manage his finances, and included topics such as financial literacy, household savings, and a few others similar trainings.

At the beginning of the refugee crisis, the focus of most aid organizations was to help refugees survive by providing shelter, cash assistance, food, etc. Now the focus shifted to helping them find work opportunities, receive vocational education, or start their own businesses in order to become self-reliant. However, despite large-scale efforts such as the Jordan Compact to ease the process of working legally, many refugees still find it difficult to find decent employment and navigate the process of acquiring a work permit.

With that in mind, DRC provides two forms of livelihood assistance by helping individuals like Sleiman obtain a work permit in the construction sector as well as providing a small grant to access the tools he needs to find decent work. Sleiman received his work permit in 2018 and he can now work formally in Jordan without having to worry about legal consequences.

It has been a few months now since Sleiman received the grant and started working formally as an electrician, and while he still sometimes struggles to find regular work opportunities, he says the difference between his life then and now is incomparable. “My earnings have increased because I’m working formally and I’m aware of all my rights. The difference that a small piece of paper can make is incredible” he said.

Providing the opportunity to refugees to find decent work not only decreases dependency on humanitarian assistance, but positively affects the Jordanian economy.

When given the opportunity to rebuild their lives, people who come from tough circumstances often grab the opportunity in both hands and go on to make incredible contributions to their community.

“We don’t want to be handed money” said Sleiman, “we just want to be allowed to work and make our own money just like we did back home”.