Al Zaatari Camp in Jordan is home to 80,000 people who have created the facility’s own economy. Ammar Awad / Reuters
Al Zaatari Camp in Jordan is home to 80,000 people who have created the facility’s own economy. Ammar Awad / Reuters

Business is anything but brisk for refugee camp entrepreneurs but survival is more important than profit

AL ZAATARI CAMP, JORDAN // When you consider that almost 80,000 people are crammed into a 5.3 square kilometre refugee camp, undoubtedly there will be a need for goods and services, and where a need arises, enterprising people will look to fulfil that and make some money in the process.

Down the bustling, narrow streets of the Al Zaatari camp, you could almost be forgiven for thinking that the customers and traders haggling from early morning until about 10pm are living regular lives. Traders lure in customers with special prices, while customers try to find the best bargains to fit their meagre budgets. But the people here are far from their homes in Syria, victims of the war that has devastated their homeland.

Among the hundreds of little huts made into shops, fresh produce, bakeries, mobile phone shops and even jewellery shops can be found on a street jokingly referred to by those who live there as the Champs-Elysees of Al Zaatari Camp. Women, children and men’s clothes, and even bridal shops, are available to those who can afford it.

If there is a need to change foreign currency, there is an exchange for that in the souk, and if a bicycle breaks down or a new one is required, there is a wealth of options. Estimates suggest there are as many as 3,000 informal shops and businesses within Al Zaatari.

Yasir Mohammed, 55, borrowed 1,000 Jordanian dinars (Dh5,180) to kickstart his business selling spices and home appliances.

“My old age and my medical condition has left me incapable of working like the younger generation inside or outside the camp, so I decided to start my own shop,” he said.

“I bought the spices and appliances from other wholesalers in the camp. I operate from 9am to 10pm, and I spend my time touting for business and trying to generate as much income as I can,” said the father of eight.

Thyme, rosemary, coriander, cumin, tarragon, cinnamon, pepper and Arabian spice are some of the items he sells. Competition is fierce and he allows himself only small a profit margin so that his business stays afloat.

“I have to accommodate and build a customer base, therefore I sell my products sometimes without any profit, just to earn a new customer,” he said. “I tend to keep a ledger book for close and known customers who buy items from me and pay me back at the end of the month or whenever they have money,” said Mr Mohammed, who has two wives.

“I am proud that I can still have the capacity to earn some money, and compete with other traders in the camp, even if the sales and revenues are meagre.”

Running his business brought a sense of normality to him and his family, as he was able to provide for them after fleeing Syria for the camp three years ago.

“Since our displacement and seeking refuge in Jordan, our lives have been turned upside down,” Mr Mohammed said. “We fled from Deraa and came to Jordan, leaving everything behind us.”

Next door to Mr Mohammed’s spice shop stands Ahmad Abdullkareem, a 21-year-old employee in a food store whose wife is expecting their first child during Ramadan.

“We sell crisps, sweets, juices, cooking oil and a lot of essential cooking items,” said the Syrian father to be who earns three dinars (Dh15) per day.

“There is business, however the competition in the camp is fierce, and the margins of profit are really low. On a really good day, our sales generate around JD100 (Dh500) but a maximum of 10 to 20 per cent of that is profit.”

Mr Abdullkareem is the sole provider for his family, which consists of his wife, mother, an aunt and a little brother.

“We are living on a day-to-day basis here as we never know what tomorrow may bring,” he said.

“I am only concerned with supporting my family here, and how will I be able to provide for my child when he comes to life next month.

“I hope by the time he is ready to go to school, we would be back in Syria, restarting our shattered lives and living in a nice home.”


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Started: 2022

Founders: Venkat Reddy, Mohammed Al Bulooki, Bilal Merchant, Asif Ahmed, Ovais Merchant

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Investors: Privately/self-funded

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Founder: Mohammed Alnamara
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Investment stage: Series A
Investors: Family offices

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Known as The Lady of Arabic Song, Umm Kulthum performed in Abu Dhabi on November 28, 1971, as part of celebrations for the fifth anniversary of the accession of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan as Ruler of Abu Dhabi. A concert hall was constructed for the event on land that is now Al Nahyan Stadium, behind Al Wahda Mall. The audience were treated to many of Kulthum's most well-known songs as part of the sold-out show, including Aghadan Alqak and Enta Omri.

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There are numerous success stories of teen businesses that were created in college dorm rooms and other modest circumstances. Below are some of the most recognisable names in the industry:

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  2. Dell: When Michael Dell was an undergraduate student at Texas University in 1984, he started upgrading computers for profit. He starting working full-time on his business when he was 19. Eventually, his company became the Dell Computer Corporation and then Dell Inc. 
  3. Subway: Fred DeLuca opened the first Subway restaurant when he was 17. In 1965, Mr DeLuca needed extra money for college, so he decided to open his own business. Peter Buck, a family friend, lent him $1,000 and together, they opened Pete’s Super Submarines. A few years later, the company was rebranded and called Subway. 
  4. Mashable: In 2005, Pete Cashmore created Mashable in Scotland when he was a teenager. The site was then a technology blog. Over the next few decades, Mr Cashmore has turned Mashable into a global media company.
  5. Oculus VR: Palmer Luckey founded Oculus VR in June 2012, when he was 19. In August that year, Oculus launched its Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $1 million in three days. Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion two years later.
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Mercer, the investment consulting arm of US services company Marsh & McLennan, expects its wealth division to at least double its assets under management (AUM) in the Middle East as wealth in the region continues to grow despite economic headwinds, a company official said.

Mercer Wealth, which globally has $160 billion in AUM, plans to boost its AUM in the region to $2-$3bn in the next 2-3 years from the present $1bn, said Yasir AbuShaban, a Dubai-based principal with Mercer Wealth.

Within the next two to three years, we are looking at reaching $2 to $3 billion as a conservative estimate and we do see an opportunity to do so,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Mercer does not directly make investments, but allocates clients’ money they have discretion to, to professional asset managers. They also provide advice to clients.

“We have buying power. We can negotiate on their (client’s) behalf with asset managers to provide them lower fees than they otherwise would have to get on their own,” he added.

Mercer Wealth’s clients include sovereign wealth funds, family offices, and insurance companies among others.

From its office in Dubai, Mercer also looks after Africa, India and Turkey, where they also see opportunity for growth.

Wealth creation in Middle East and Africa (MEA) grew 8.5 per cent to $8.1 trillion last year from $7.5tn in 2015, higher than last year’s global average of 6 per cent and the second-highest growth in a region after Asia-Pacific which grew 9.9 per cent, according to consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG). In the region, where wealth grew just 1.9 per cent in 2015 compared with 2014, a pickup in oil prices has helped in wealth generation.

BCG is forecasting MEA wealth will rise to $12tn by 2021, growing at an annual average of 8 per cent.

Drivers of wealth generation in the region will be split evenly between new wealth creation and growth of performance of existing assets, according to BCG.

Another general trend in the region is clients’ looking for a comprehensive approach to investing, according to Mr AbuShaban.

“Institutional investors or some of the families are seeing a slowdown in the available capital they have to invest and in that sense they are looking at optimizing the way they manage their portfolios and making sure they are not investing haphazardly and different parts of their investment are working together,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Some clients also have a higher appetite for risk, given the low interest-rate environment that does not provide enough yield for some institutional investors. These clients are keen to invest in illiquid assets, such as private equity and infrastructure.

“What we have seen is a desire for higher returns in what has been a low-return environment specifically in various fixed income or bonds,” he said.

“In this environment, we have seen a de facto increase in the risk that clients are taking in things like illiquid investments, private equity investments, infrastructure and private debt, those kind of investments were higher illiquidity results in incrementally higher returns.”

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, said in its 2016 report that has gradually increased its exposure in direct private equity and private credit transactions, mainly in Asian markets and especially in China and India. The authority’s private equity department focused on structured equities owing to “their defensive characteristics.”

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Investment stage: Seed


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Favourite book: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Favourite travel destination: Maldives and south of France

Favourite pastime: Family and friends, meditation, discovering new cuisines

Favourite Movie: Joker (2019). I didn’t like it while I was watching it but then afterwards I loved it. I loved the psychology behind it.

Favourite Author: My father for sure

Favourite Artist: Damien Hurst

Tips for travelling while needing dialysis
  • Inform your doctor about your plans. 
  • Ask about your treatment so you know how it works. 
  • Pay attention to your health if you travel to a hot destination. 
  • Plan your trip well. 

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