On a sunny October morning, I was blinking back tears of pride as 39 women, hailing from poor families, some with Down syndrome, gathered on a terrace to receive certificates celebrating their completion of a handicraft and soap making training workshop supported by USAID. Atayeb el Rif (Rural Delights), a cooperative that specializes in local gourmet foods and delicacies, organized the training as part of a grant it received under the USAID Lebanon Industry Value Chain Development (LIVCD) project to enhance the economic status of women in North Lebanon.
North Lebanon, an area that has seen a large influx of Syrian refugees, had already been facing many economic challenges, most notably loss of income due to scarce employment opportunities. USAID has intensified efforts in this region to help Lebanese communities hosting Syrian refugees through targeted assistance. The grant, launched in May 2012, helps provide economic opportunities for women and youth in rural areas, and thereby decrease migration to already over populated urban areas and improve Lebanon’s economic stability. As part of the grant, a six-day training workshop, related to accessories, needle work, soap making, and soap decoration skills, was provided to 120 women in three areas in North Lebanon, Batroun, Koura, and Donnieh. In addition to the training, each woman also received a tool kit containing $150 worth of supplies, tools, beads, molds, and threads to enable them to start their own small production home-based enterprises.
I was impressed by the array of handicrafts on display, ranging from beautifully decorated soaps to beaded fabrics, done with meticulous attention to detail and most of all passion. In fact, it was easy to sense that passion as the women enthusiastically shared their stories with us. “This training opened new opportunities. I will start producing accessories soon, and I hope to be able to open my own little shop to sell them. I also plan to benefit from the project’s assistance in marketing and to attend exhibitions and fairs to display my handicrafts,” commented one of the participants. But it was a 23-year old participant with Down syndrome, whose testimonial touched all attendees as she spoke with courage and pride about the prospects of this opportunity in ensuring a better income for her family.
The USAID Lebanon Industry Value Chain Development continued support to the women after their training graduation by providing ongoing coaching. USAID also facilitated the women’s access to markets by helping them to rent space at holiday events and fairs to sell their products to generate additional income. The USAID LIVCD project is a five-year project that provides income-generating opportunities for small businesses while creating jobs for rural populations, in particular women and youth.
I walked away with a basket of beautiful soap accessories that I can hang around the house for a profusion of scents. But most of all, I walked away inspired by the determination of these women to go beyond their potential in order to be the catalysts for change and growth in their community and country.