One night last spring, when bombs fell on her neighbors' house, Nahla Abdul-Raheem fled her own comfortable two-story home in Dara'a, Syria, with her husband and five children, the youngest daughter just 4 years old. Her husband owned his own advertising company. She had never worked.
He was able to find a low-paying job in Jordan, though it wasn't enough to pay their son's fees at a university in Amman, where he studies design. But Abdul-Raheem, 43, met some Jordanian women, including Najah Shahateet, 45. They urged her to start working to bring in income for her family.
"They told me to bring my daughters, be part of the bazaar in [eastern Amman] that is held in the beautiful garden," said Abdul-Raheem.
Abdul-Raheem is one of the 500,000 refugees who escaped the Syrian civil war into neighboring Jordan, where many now live in one of the world's largest refugee camps. Jobs are scarce, but Abdul-Raheem was lucky to find herself under the wing of Jordanian women. Though they could have seen her as competition, they instead introduced her to a microfinance program run by Atlanta-based CARE.
After taking out a loan for about $100, Abdul-Raheem set up a business selling gold-plated accessories at the bazaar in the Al-Hashimi garden. She now makes enough to pay back the loan but is planning to take a sewing class so she can also make cloth accessories, having just learned that her husband recently lost his job. When she wants a new skill, she said, "I ask, and I learn."
Microfinance programs, like CARE's, which has about 700 members and a repayment rate so far of 100 percent, are helping to break down the barriers to women's entrepreneurship in the Middle East. Though the rate of women's entrepreneurship in the region that includes the Middle East remains low—only about one-quarter of start-ups are run by women—there appears to be the biggest pent-up demand among women. For every woman entrepreneur, six plan to start a business, according to the "Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2012 Women's Report."
(Read more: Arab Spring 2.0: The rise of women entrepreneurs)