Portrait of Raaja Albalbisi in the midst of traffic.

Rajaa’s work is crucial for her family in the refugee camp

Early mornings, Rajaa usually takes the three-hour-long bus ride from the refugee camp to work with IKEA collections at The Jordan River Foundation in Amman. The job gives her family an income — and the design represents both courage and hope. Now she hopes the lockdown will come to an end so that she can get on the bus again.

In 2014, when the Syrian civil war had been going on for three years, Raaja Albalbisi turned 17 years old. Together with her family, she had no choice but to leave Syria to seek refuge in the neighboring country of Jordan. She left not only friends and family behind, but also the high school she went to. She had already lost her father and brother in the war, and ended up in Zaatari, the largest refugee camp in the Middle East, together with her mother, her sisters, and four nieces and nephews.

A couple of years later Rajaa was married and had moved into the city of Amman. A friend told her about Jordan River Foundation, and after a 25-day long course, she started working there as a seamstress.

Jordan – a country of only 9 million people with high rates of unemployment – has taken on a great responsibility hosting Syrian refugees. The non-profit organization Jordan River Foundation and IKEA work closely together to create jobs for women in this hard-pressed region, while at the same time creating products that represent courage and vision in terms of design. One example is BOTANISK, a collection created in collaboration with six social entrepreneurs in India, Thailand, Jordan, and Romania. Another example is TILLTALANDE, an IKEA collection of precious hand-crafted textiles that was launched last year. Rajaa worked with both of the collections.

A bright room with several sewing machines and piles of fabric, two women are sewing.

“I am in the cutting department. I am very happy with how I am being treated here. I have learned a lot and the income really helps. In the future I would love to do embroidery as well, as I can do that from home even if — God forbid — there is another wave of lockdown here in Jordan,” says Rajaa.

The job as a seamstress for Jordan River Foundation gives Rajaa the opportunity to support not just herself, but also support her family. When Rajaa joined, she lived in Amman, but when she went through a divorce the year after, she moved back to Zaatari since tradition states that a divorced woman moves back with her family. The only problem in Rajaa’s case is that Zaatari is about three hours away from Amman. She did not want to quit her job, and the manager said that “she was too good to just let go”, so Rajaa started taking the bus at 5:30 in the morning to be there at 9. In the evening she would be back around dinner time.

Despite the three-hour-long commute, the job is crucial for Rajaa. In a family consisting of eight people she and one of her sisters, who works at a humanitarian organization in the camp, are the only providers.

“We are three sisters, my mother, and the four children of my brother and his wife who both died in the war. My father was also killed, so for me, there’s nothing more important than this job,” says Rajaa.

In Zaatari, there are many people whose lives are a constant struggle to provide for themselves and their families, and the pandemic lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus does not make it easier. When the ban was lifted and businesses reopened in Amman, the refugee camp stayed closed.

How has the pandemic and the lockdown affected you?

 “It was a major change to my everyday routine; I could not go to work. I still can’t leave the camp because it is truly a total lockdown. We all feel very depressed about it. First, I worried that Jordan River Foundation would not pay my monthly salary, but when they did, I was relieved. Thank you JRF!”

What are you looking forward to the most, when you can start commuting to JRF again?

“I want my normal life back. I want to be able to leave the camp and go to Jordan River Foundation again. I miss my colleagues, I miss my chats with them, I even miss the building! I want to feel productive again,” says Rajaa.

 In the future, Rajaa hopes are to develop in her current field or continue her studies.

“I never got to go to high school. I only finished tenth grade,” says Rajaa.

IKEA and Jordan River Foundation continues the long-term partnership – even more important in times when the world has been severely impacted by Covid-19. As soon as the lockdown is over, production will continue at JRF.

World Refugee Day

World Refugee Day, 20 June 2020, honours the many people that have been forced to leave their homes to find safety from war, violence, or persecution. No matter what they leave behind, they all bring three things with them wherever they go: skills, talents, and aspirations. In many different ways, we at IKEA have been working to create new opportunities for refugees to rebuild their lives and earn a better income. We do this because it is part of our vision, to create a better everyday life for the many people.