Syrian businesses take refuge in Jordan
AMMAN, Jordan—Street noises mix with a call to prayer coming from the King Hussein Mosque in downtown Amman, the city’s commercial center, while on a nearby street corner, Issam, a Syrian businessman, calmly answers a steady flow of phone calls and customers’ questions.
The 44-year-old has successfully transferred his shoe business from Syria’s war-ravaged city of Aleppo to the Jordanian capital, starting his enterprise anew in Amman like hundreds—if not thousands—of other Syrian refugee businessmen that Jordanian officials say have settled in the kingdom, many operating without a license.
Issam used to own a factory in Aleppo’s industrial zone and a shop in its old city, now the front line in the battle between rebels and government forces. Having escaped “with his clothes and some cash,” he now operates a successful shoe business in Amman.
The well-groomed Issam tells of his perilous escape from shelling, looting and other dangers in his hometown. “I had to pay $20,000 to free my kidnapped brother. People like me with some financial means became a target of everybody—the government forces and some anti-government groups,” he told The Media Line.
Aleppo’s industrial zone and the old city became increasingly difficult places to do business as the fighting became more intense, sending production costs skyrocketing and suffering looting by all parties in the conflict, he explained. The once-safe city turned into a battleground between the determined rebels and the heavily-armed government troops.
Issam matter-of-factly tells of a journey under shelling and making his way past potentially dangerous checkpoints manned by various armed groups.
Despite all that, he hasn’t lost his edge as a canny businessman from Aleppo, one of the region’s most ancient trade centers. Issam began there with a used shoe sewing machine, his own skill and a long list of clients from around the Middle East and built up a thriving business. So making the transition after his perilous flight here has not been problematic.
“It was not difficult to settle in the new environment. I know the language and I started quickly to avoid feeling sorry for myself,” he added.
Indeed, Aleppo was a key Syrian economic center before the outbreak of violence. Contributing nearly one-third of the country’s economic output, it had nearly 30,000 industrial sites. It remains Syria’s largest and wealthiest city. Issam is just one of thousands of Aleppo-based merchants who have managed to flee along with their businesses. The majority settled on the other side of the border, in Turkey, while others preferred Dubai’s tax-free economic system or headed to Europe.
With his network of clients from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman, Issam expanded and now both exports and sells to the local market.
The exodus of Syrian businessmen and refugees has given the Jordanians a distinct sense of déjà vu. Following the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, wealthy Iraqi businessmen fled the sectarian war and headed to Jordan, another humanitarian disaster leading to a flight of businesses from yet another economically stable country, to the kingdom. Jordanians have yet to recover from the Iraqis’ impact on property values, which skyrocketed after their arrival.
Cash-strapped Jordan, already facing mounting economic difficulties, is struggling to cope with the large influx of refugees since the crisis started. The government says nearly 230,000 refugees have entered, mostly women and children. With a Sunni majority, Jordanians support Syria’s anti-Assad movement.
Officials from the Investment Promotion Commission said that while they are still studying the impact of Syrian businesses on Jordan’s economy, Amman is an open market to all investors, and the Syrians had been given no special privileges to lure them to the kingdom.
Still, despite their sympathy for their neighbors, Jordanians are starting to feel the squeeze from their newfound competition with the newly arrived Syrian businessmen in an already-tight economy.
While business leaders say they welcome the newcomers with open arms, owners of small businesses worry that their share of the market could be endangered.
Ebrahim Hadad, a 65-year-old businessman, runs a garment factory in the capital’s Jabal Amman quarter, where he sells clothes to local and regional markets. He said Syrians are managing to cut production costs by operating from apartments, hiring refugees and avoiding taxation.
“Syrians are welcomed; this country is comprised of refugees. However, they are hurting our businesses. I am unable to compete with them. This is unfair to local industry,” he told The Media Line.
A few meters down the street, near a busy traffic light, another example of Syrian business initiative was on display, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. “Red Syrian tea, red Syrian tea,” 12-year-old Syrian youth Abdel Ghani shouted as he approached motorists with his tray.
Like most child laborers, he works to support his four sisters and sick mother.
“We are getting little assistance from the charity groups,” he says. “My father is missing and my mother is injured and getting hospital treatment,” Ghani added as he expertly maneuvered between the cars to sell his drinks to the drivers and their passengers.
Shoemaker Issam insists he’s not here to take food away from anyone, but rather is seeking a safe place, like the majority of the kingdom’s population, who also escaped wars in their countries-of-birth and ended up settling in Jordan.
That’s what low-tech entrepreneur Abdel Ghani seeks as well as he continues to snake his way though traffic at the busy corner. He complained to The Media Line that other kids selling gum and flowers harass him.
“Some people attack me and say I should not work, but I ignore them and go to another traffic light,” young Ghani said. “I need to put bread on the table.”