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The Syrian business uprising

Pay it forward: Jordanian Najah Shahateet, left, helped Syrian refugee Nahla Abdul-Raheem start a local business.
Pay it forward: Jordanian Najah Shahateet, left, helped Syrian refugee Nahla Abdul-Raheem start a local business.

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)

Microfinance raises hopes

"I prefer to live in the ups and downs of each day." -Nahla Abdul-Raheem, Syrian entrepreneur

The cultural barrier to women working outside the home differs throughout the region—in Syria it was especially high, said Ghada Abu Batnin, who works with CARE's microfinance program in Jordan. The need for money to support refugee families may be breaking down that barrier.

"In this very bad and very critical economical situation, they [have] to work," said Abu Batnin. Few Syrian men have been able to find jobs in the Jordanian economy, but women can more easily make money in the informal economy. As the women become breadwinners out of necessity, their husbands "are accepting in a better way for the Syrian women to work," Abu Batnin said.

Entrepreneurship is a traditional route to power for the disenfranchised, said Premal Shah, the president of Kiva.org, a nonprofit that offers crowdfunding loans for as little as $25 to create business opportunity and alleviate poverty around the world. In fact, women elicit the most support on Kiva's platform, perhaps because they face the dual challenges of being poor and being a woman. Statistics tell the story. Since its launch in 2004, Kiva.org has doled out nearly $500 million in loans. Sixty percent of the more than 1 million lenders on Kiva's platform are women, three-quarters of the loans on Kiva's platform go to women, and gender is the biggest determinant of the rate of funding.

"For all of history, there has not been equality. People want to level the playing field," Shah said.

(Read more: Crowdfunding 2.0: A new era for start-up finance)

Crossing boundaries

"When you help one woman participate in the economic life of her community, she will help dozens more do the same." -Premal Shah, President of Kiva.org

The war in Syria shut down the microenterprise programs in that country that were helping women, such as one run by Silatech, founded by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser of Qatar. Silatech has helped 50,000 enterprises in the region as part of its mission to create jobs for young people. A growing number of the program's participants are women, who at times represent as much as a third of the people at lively start-up gatherings.

Abdul-Raheem probably never would have been one of the women at the start-up gatherings; she said she prefers not to think much about the future and whether she will ever return to Syria. "I prefer to live in the ups and downs of each day," she said through a translator.

Friendships, like the one she has with Najah Shahateet, help. Shahateet sells baked goods at the bazaar, and the two support each other's stands. They have a profit margin of around 13 percent on their goods, they said, based on the basic bookkeeping skills they've learned in their group.

Syrian women entrepreneurs such as Abdul-Raheem serve as powerful role models. Research shows that women who succeed reinvest in their children and in their communities. Even amid the hardships, she loves working and brings her daughters with her to the bazaar.

"When you help one woman participate in the economic life of her community," said Kiva's Shah, "she will help dozens more do the same."

—By Elizabeth MacBride, Special to CNBC.com

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