Entrepreneurship has become a beacon of hope in wartorn Syria

It is no secret that Syria is mired in a vicious war that is tearing the country apart and threatening international security. Yet as in other places, it is the youth who shoulder the heaviest burden of conflict and poverty.

There are now more than 4.8 million registered Syrian refugees, with around 1 in 3 Syrian children experiencing nothing but war in their lifetime. Inside Syria, 2.1 million children are out of school, and 500,000 are at risk of dropping out. Among the refugee population, more than 916,000 (56 percent) school-age Syrian children are out of school across the region. Nearly 7 million children inside Syria live in poverty, and levels of recruitment and use of children in hostilities are increasing.

A market in Syria
Molhem Barakat | Reuters
A market in Syria

As a result of these and other traumas, Syrian human development has regressed by more than four decades during the war. The country now ranks 134th in the United Nations Human Development Index, a precipitous decline of 28 spots over the past five years.

Much has been written about this sad reality. But beneath the rubble and human tragedy is a foundation of hope for the future.

Succeeding under intense pressure

Long known as an enterprising people, Syrians are renowned as merchants, craftsmen and tradesmen, with a highly skilled workforce. Syrian educational attainment levels have historically been among the highest in the region. While the crisis has shut the door to many opportunities on Syrian young people, that enterprising spirit is engrained in the Syrian psyche and has not been extinguished.

Syrians are used to working under conditions of hardship. As the subject of various international sanctions over the course of several decades, the Syrian business community has proven incredibly resilient. Our colleague and executive director of the Syrian Economic Forum (SEF) Tammam Al Baroudi, for example, manufactured sophisticated diamond-cutting blades in the industrial heartland of Aleppo which could not be imported. As the old adage goes, diamonds are indeed formed under intense pressure.

There is a growing realization within the international community that one of the best ways to address the refugee crisis, short of some political or military resolution, is through developmental approaches that empower refugees to provide for their own livelihoods and contribute economically to host communities. This requires harnessing the latent ingenuity of the Syrian people as a source of innovation. It is happening, but there is so much more to be done.

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An example of this is when the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and SEF developed a course that combines entrepreneurship with civics 101. Taught by Syrian university professors, the course has inspired thousands of young people to develop enterprise solutions to the challenges in their communities.

Around half the courses were held in Kilis, Turkey, and the other half inside Syria in Aleppo and Idlib. The University of Aleppo has now adopted this as part of its first year curriculum and is teaching it to students in campuses operating in the Aleppo countryside.

We are now also taking the course online to reach young Syrians wherever they are. CIPE and SEF are adapting and expanding the course for online instruction via a new e-learning platform called Ta'alum ("Learning"). Meanwhile, organizations like the Dutch NGO SPARK are leading the charge when it comes to expanding Syrian access to higher education.

"One of the best ways to address the refugee crisis ... is through developmental approaches that empower refugees to provide for their own livelihoods. ... It is happening, but there is so much more to be done."

Among the thousands of existing Syrian businesses operating in the informal sector in Turkey, SEF is leading a new initiative to bring them into the formal economy, which is being met with great demand. By raising awareness of legal requirements, making the business case for registration and facilitating the process, SEF is ameliorating a significant barrier to entry and stimulating growth in the local economy. It's a formula that has great potential for application in other communities affected by the refugee crisis.

SEF also created opportunity for Syrian investment in the Gaziantep, Turkey Free Economic Zone and secured the necessary approvals from Turkish authorities. From potato chip flavoring to PVC pipes, Syrian factories are now churning out their products there and putting young Syrians and Turks to work.

Last November SEF hosted the first-ever Global Entrepreneurship Week-Syria, with a celebration of civic education and the young leaders who represent Syria's future. This November 18, SEF will be hosting GEW in Gaziantep to showcase the work being done to encourage business formality among Syrian entrepreneurs in Turkey. At a time of mounting global pressures over the refugee crisis and with Syria's future in the balance, there couldn't be a better time to celebrate GEW.

By Stephen Rosenlund, senior program officer specializing in the Levant at the Center for International Private Enterprise, and Ayman Tabbaa, a founding member and chairman of the board of directors of the Syrian Economic Forum