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A Garment Shop Makes a Syrian Dream Come True in Egypt

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Mahmoud was one of many refugees and asylum seekers severely impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak; many lost everything and had to start again from scratch.

By Mina Shehata

“In 2013, I escaped from Syria with my family, and once we reached Egypt, we headed directly to register with UNHCR as we were in need of international protection and a valid residency permit.”

With this sentence, Mahmoud, a 34-year-old tailor, started his story. Mahmoud owned a garment factory in Damascus. His siblings used to manage it with him, and they all master tailoring. However, Mahmoud had to give up everything including the factory, and flee the country, seeking refuge abroad.

Mahmoud’s first years in Alexandria were not easy, as he had to work in a restaurant to provide his family with a basic income that would satisfy some of their needs.

Egypt hosts more than 267,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR and Syrian nationals represent 50% of the overall number. Access to livelihoods opportunities is a key challenge for refugees and asylum seekers, which hinders their ability to pay rent, buy food, and live a decent life. Their income often does not cover their families’ basic needs and keeps them in an endless survival mode.

In 2016, Mahmoud decided to reclaim his passion, by getting part-time work in a garment factory owned by an Egyptian man, where he started to save some money to achieve his dream in the future. In one year, Mahmoud proved to be a unique tailor by starting a new production line, with positive results for the factory, as they were able to increase revenue and extend the factory’s production capacities.

During this period, Mahmoud dreamt of buying sewing machines to start his own income-generating project. But it seemed a faraway dream as he could barely make ends meet, until one day, he was introduced to the funding opportunities offered by Caritas, a UNHCR NGO partner, through a refugee friend. He reached out to Caritas seeking an opportunity to receive a grant and start his project.

In 2017, Mahmoud applied for the grant and received the good news that his project was eligible to get funds from UNHCR. Besides the financial support offered through livelihoods small grants, UNHCR helps refugees and asylum-seekers to support themselves and their families by offering training, assisting in finding a market for their skills and goods.

With the support received through Caritas, Mahmoud set up his shop and started working with three sewing machines, and his Egyptian and Syrian friends began to market his products by word of mouth.

Mahmoud said, “I started saving from my income to buy various types of sewing machines. I also offered my Egyptian friends internship opportunities to learn how to use sewing machines and new sewing techniques, so that they could also find a source of income.” He adds, “I was always welcomed and supported by Egyptians, which encouraged me to train and hire Egyptians in my shop.”

In only two years, he was able to teach more than 100 Egyptian men and women sewing techniques in Alexandria. Two years later, Mahmoud was informed that UNHCR provides additional grants for successful small projects to expand their work. He applied for a grant immediately and his wish came true, once UNHCR and Caritas approved his project after paying a visit to Mahmoud’s shop to discuss his feasibility plan.

In no time, the three machines became 30, with more materials and different garment production tools. At that time, Mahmoud’s factory was home for Egyptian and Syrian employees. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country, many small businesses struggled to remain profitable despite the closures and his business was one of the pandemic’s victims.

“Before COVID-19 and with UNHCR’s support and the hard work, I bought more than 30 different machines and owned a factory, but because of the lockdown many orders were canceled, and I had to keep only 10 machines and 18 workers, 15 Egyptians and 3 Syrians, to guarantee a minimum of stability until this crisis ends,” Mahmoud explained.

Mahmoud was one of many refugees and asylum seekers severely impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak; many lost everything and had to start again from scratch.

Today, Mahmoud has one wish which is to be able to increase his factory’s production back to pre-pandemic levels. And he strives to do so while he never forgets to keep smiling, show resilience in the face of adversity, and hope for a better future.