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Helping Syrian refugees earn a living

Syrian refugee crisis

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Singaporean social enterprise Artisan & Fox helps to relieve the Syrian refugee crisis by selling scarves hand-made by women in refugee camps.

He had no idea that his first trip to a Syrian refugee camp would comprise confrontations from armed men.

Singaporean social entrepreneur Jaron Soh, 24, was visiting Lebanon in 2017 together with his team to find out how he can create a project to alleviate the Syrian refugee crisis, but ended up facing a few threatening encounters along the way.

"I was taking a lot of photos and this guy with a concealed weapon came to my team and I. He asked to look through my camera and warned us to let him know if we wanted to take photos," he recounted.

Another time during the same trip, he was taking photographs on a rooftop when he heard several men from another building shouting furiously at him.

"It's scary, because if someone shoots at you from the top of another building, you won't even know where it came from," Jaron said. He explained how his team developed paranoia of being attacked because the men could potentially be armed.

Syrian woman
Jaron felt the need to help Syrian refugee women who had no job opportunities. They were often discouraged by the men to leave where they stay in their camps as they had child-caring duties.
PHOTO CREDIT: ARTISAN & FOX

While such experiences would have sent most running as far away as possible from the conflict zones, it served only to strengthen Jaron's resolve to help the refugees.

Last October, the young founder of social enterprise Artisan & Fox started a new project: Threads of Syria. The non-profit project helps Syrian women refugees sell their hand-knitted scarves online.

Every day, these Syrian women (ranging between 19 and 62 years old) knit from their camps. The women are guaranteed S$20.11 (US$15) per scarf – which takes about two to three days to knit – and are able to work flexible hours.

While Jaron handles the project in Singapore, he calls the people he met in Syria from time to time via Skype to catch up. He also does field trips with his team regularly.

Founder of Artisan & Fox
Prior to his current projects, Jaron has worked on projects with artisans from six different countries, including Kenya and Nepal. Similar to Threads of Syria, each project serves to help artisans market their products online for an income.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/SHERILYN CHONG

Jaron developed an interest and a better understanding of the Syrian refugee crisis during his time studying for a Bachelor of Science in Management. He connected with Tight-Knit Syria, a Canadian non-governmental organisation, for his first trip to Lebanon with them in October last year.

It was on this trip that the passionate social business founder noticed one big issue in Syrian refugee camps: boredom.

"The women were neither working nor getting aid, throwing them into a depressive, unproductive loop," Jaron explained.

The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) graduate made another observation – the women had at least 15 years of knitting experience.

Putting the two together, Jaron saw a way to tap on their talents to alleviate their situation, and the Threads of Syria project was born.

Threads of Syria
The artisans in Lebanon are given the opportunity to provide inputs on the scarf designs created by Artisan & Fox.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/SHERILYN CHONG

Threads of Syria is funded by profits from other projects in the team's social business. The Singaporean-based team – who were acquainted by what Jaron called "serendipity" – also received seed funding from their previous universities and raised more than S$34,858.20 (US$26,000) on Indiegogo, a platform that hosts crowdfunding campaigns.

After costs like shipping, packaging and administration fees, all profits are given back to the women and the camp community. To date, the team has sold about 400 scarves and raised about S$26,814 (US$20,000).

When asked about the impact of the project, Jaron said: "From what we've heard from the refugee women, we understand that knitting together gives them a safe space and purpose every day.

"Knitting side by side in spaces with other women in the camp helps build a sense of community. We realised that the women started smiling a lot more, and also joke with each other while they knit!"

Syrian refugee crisis
He noticed that the women developed close ties with one another and now appear hopeful.
PHOTO CREDIT: ARTISAN & FOX

For youths who are interested to help Syrian refugees, Jaron suggested supporting non-governmental organisations who directly support the refugees, or to raise awareness and therefore put pressure on the Syrian government.

As for those who wish to start a social enterprise, Jaron shared his advice: "Firstly, empathise with the cause that you see. But the most important thing is to have a really good local understanding, experience and interaction with the people you're trying to help.

"Without it, you may be doing something that sounds good in theory, but also something that people don't need."

Hand-knitted scarves are sold online on three different sites and at pop-up stores in Singapore, Canada and London.

BANNER PHOTO CREDIT: ARTISAN & FOX