I recently attended the 14th Annual Migration and Women’s Rights Conference, organized by Fordham University’s Institute for Women and Girls. This event brought together academics and entrepreneurs for an energizing discussion on the current challenges facing migrant communities and how to help empower migrant women through employment.
The keynote address was delivered by Kathryn Libal, Ph.D, Director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut. Her research focuses on the issues currently faced by Syrian women in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. While the mass influx of refugees into Europe has gained significant media attention, the vast majority are living in gated camps in these nearby countries. These are long term resettlements that need long term economic solutions for the residents. Child marriage, child labor, and lack of education are all intertwined issues that are results of the Syrian civil war. There is a lack of work authorization, as host nations experiencing their own significant levels of unemployment require business to hire equal amounts of refugees and the native born population. For fair trade entrepreneurs hoping to help employ or collaborate with refugees, the legal requirements of the host country must be taken into consideration.
Many pilot programs while, successful, do not manage to secure long term funding to scale up. Of the 40,000 work permits issues to Syrians, only 5% went to women (1). When women are employed, it is often in the garment sector making uniforms or repurposing tents into shopping bags. Arab Renaissance for Democracy & Development is an organization that is doing significant work to improve the lives of refugees. For students or those interested in volunteering on the ground, this organization does accept interns.
A panel discussion followed featuring local entrepreneurs such as Mana Kahi, founder of EAT OFFBEAT, an NYC-based catering service that employs refugees. EAT OFFBEAT is a for-profit company with the goal of showing that social enterprise works and is sustainable. Kahi spoke of the importance of changing the narrative around refugees – that these are people we can all learn from and who want to contribute to the economy. Another panelist was Angela Luna, founder and designer at ADIFF. On a visit to refugee camps in Greece, Ms. Luna noticed the lack of useful donated clothing that would provide both “shelter and dignity” to those in need. This inspired a line of multifunctional garments that could transform from reflective jackets to tents. Having recently launched a successful Kickstarter campaign, ADIFF plans to continue to support their young business though a “one-for-one” model, selling full-price editions to outdoor enthusiasts and donating affordable (but still functional) versions to those in need.
With the severe lack of government resources or will in many countries to provide solutions for refugees, the overall consensus from the event was that concerned citizens, whether experts from academia or students and entrepreneurs, must fill in the gap and continue to bring creative ideas to the table instead. There is great need but also great opportunity for entrepreneurs interested in the socially responsible business model.
1: Libal, Kathryn, PhD. “Employment Challenges for Refugees” Migration and Women’s Rights: Employment Challenges, Empowerment and Best Practices, 18 March, 2017, Fordham University Law School, New York, NY. Keynote Address.