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Chapter 1 immerses the reader into the Za'atari refugee camp. Situated in Jordan just seven and a half miles south of the Syrian border, the camp – a two-square-mile rectangle divided into twelve districts – is nestled in the very heart of the Middle East. Here, in the desert heat, a community was born in the swell of crisis. The reader is immediately introduced to the book's three featured Syrian women entrepreneurs – Yasmina, Asma, and Malak – in their elements. Yasmina, a salon and wedding dress shop owner, is relaxing in the salon with her family as her client celebrates a beautiful wedding a couple of districts away. Asma, a social entrepreneur and teacher, is reading a story to a group of children – including three of her own – in her trailer, which she has converted into a magical hideout for the children. Malak, an artist, is putting the finishing touches on a series of drawings for an event at a youth center that is meant to encourage the girls in Za'atari to push against the harmful practice of child marriage.
Chapter 12 features the three entrepreneurs discussing their hopes for the future. Despite its progress, Za'atari still faces significant challenges in terms of basic resources and opportunities. So each entrepreneur represents a different hope. Yasmina, as the oldest of the group, discusses the ultimate hope within residents: that there will be lasting peace in Syria and they can return home. Asma considers another hope many have: resettlement to new communities. She talks about her potential resettlement to Canada after recently being interviewed at the embassy in Amman, and what it would mean for her children to have more consistent, higher quality education. Malak discusses the hope that, even if she is to remain in Za'atari for long, it will be better resourced so all children will have the opportunity to realize their God-given gifts. Her most recent painting of a woman, covered in vibrant colors and looking upward, represents this hope – as she accepts her life in Za'atari for now and sees her purpose as living out her gifts boldly as a role model for the children around her. In this spirit, the book ends with a poem by Asma about the hopes and dreams of Za'atari.
Chapter 4 provides an overview of today’s global refugee crisis, driven by perspectives of refugees around the world. The Syrian war has displaced a stunning half of Syria’s prewar population, with nearly 80,000 of those Syrians having fled to nearby Za'atari; the UN calls it “the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time.” But it is only a part of a broader global crisis: today, more people than at any other time in history have been forcibly displaced from their homes. More than twenty-six million refugees, over half of whom are children, have fled their home countries entirely. This chapter provides a brief exploration of the major crises causing displacement, from instability in Central America and Afghanistan, to the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, to wars in South Sudan and Yemen. And it considers where most refugees end up: in host cities, in refugee camps, and – unfortunately only on rare occurences – resettled permanently in adoptive cities. It discusses how, due to continuing conflicts and tightening restrictions on acceptance of refugees, refugee camps are increasingly becoming like permanent settlements, despite their intended role as temporary safe havens.
Chapter 9 is about the present impact of the three entrepreneurs’ ventures, alongside many others, on the Za'atari community. A far cry from its makeshift origins, Za'atari is now much like a city. The Shams-Élysées, the Saudi Market, and other areas are buzzing as more than 3,000 businesses generate about $13 million in revenue a month and serve community members. These include bird shops, a cinema, sustainable farming solutions, and, of course, the ventures launched by Yasmina, Asma, and Malak. Yasmina is bringing profound joy into the lives of women across Za'atari. She helps brides feel special, valued, and beautiful, sometimes after a long period of feeling forgotten. Asma is uplifting Za'atari's children to reach for their highest aspirations. Much to her delight, her apprentice Nawara creates her own version of the storytelling initiative that is widely attended. In addition to running her studio with Treza, Malak repeatedly uses her art to empower the children around her, especially on the issue of child marriage. She designs twenty powerful drawings that are presented to girls during a workshop, empowering them to push back against such arrangements.
Chapter 8 describes the extraordinary obstacles facing refugee entrepreneurs and explains why – despite these challenges – refugees excel as entrepreneurs. Refugees face the steepest of uphill climbs, dealing with everything from trauma to a lack of access to credit to discrimination to limited networks. Still, they are much more likely to be entrepreneurs than native-born citizens. Refugees’ sparks are not accidental; they have unique qualities based on their experiences that make them more likely to come up with, and successfully see through, startup ideas. First, many refugees innovate because it is their only way to survive, and are thus immensely committed. For Yasmina, innovating was a requirement to feed her children. Second, refugees benefit from exposure to other cultures' ideas and markets. One appeal of Malak's work is her ability to infuse Syrian flair. Third, refugees, far from home, are often intensely motivated to meet the needs of their new neighbors and find innovations to do just that – as Asma did for Za'atari. Fourth, they are often pushed to entrepreneurship by employment discrimination. Fifth, they have an unmatched level of resilience.
Chapter 2 goes back in time to the three entrepreneurs’ lives in a peaceful prewar Syria, and their flights to safety in Za'atari. All three lead comfortable lives before the sudden, life-altering events of the Arab Spring: protests in Dara'a, the Syrian government’s violent response, and families fleeing homes amid subsequent fighting. Yasmina is living out her childhood passion, running a salon and wedding shop in Dara'a. Her family flees when she is seven months pregnant; on the way to Za'atari, they shelter in others' homes and abandoned schoolhouses, and her son is born premature. Asma grew up adoring school, but her lack of confidence and the busyness of raising a family kept her from her dream of teaching. Still, living in a large house with an olive tree in Dara'a, Asma enjoys her days reading to her children, Tamara, Ashraf, and newborn Maya. Just twenty days after Maya’s birth, Asma's family flees. Only a teenager and the youngest of thirteen siblings, Malak leads a joyful life filled with art, family, and friends in Damascus. She cries with her sisters just before leaving, unwilling to accept that the next morning she would wake up in a tent within a refugee camp.
Chapter 11 discusses the economic, social, spiritual, and personal impact of refugee entrepreneurship around the world. Za'atari is but one example: camps across the globe – from Kutupalong in Bangladesh, to Skaramagas in Greece, to Dadaab in Kenya – have emerged as hubs of entrepreneurship, to the surprise of those who imagine refugees in camps as passively reliant on aid. And refugees have ignited significant positive change in refugee-welcoming cities around the world as well – from Bosnian, Burmese, and Somali refugees revitalizing the once-declining Rust Belt city of Utica, New York, to long-persecuted Hazara refugees creating new ventures to revive the community of Port Adelaide, Australia. While there is an up-front economic cost to welcoming refugees into cities from camps like Za'atari, that investment is clearly a positive one thanks to refugees' contributions in the form of business growth, social innovation, and cultural enrichment. This is not to mention the quiet moments of love, comfort, and togetherness created by refugees’ very presence as neighbors, colleagues, and friends in communities around the world.
Chapter 5 describes the moments that the three Za'atari entrepreneurs push beyond their darkness to find their ideas – each tapping into their childhood passions through different catalyzing events. Yasmina helps prepare her cousin for her wedding in Za'atari, receives rave reviews, and sees her passion rekindled. Determining that she needed to help support her children, she makes the monumental decision to sell her rings, necklace, and bracelet for startup capital. She plans for the launch of a salon and wedding dress store from her home trailer. After her son’s death, Asma resolves to treat the children in Za'atari as if they are her own. Much to her joy, she attends a teacher training program sponsored by an NGO and comes home with educational books that she can use in preparing her storytelling initiative. Art continues to be Malak’s light during her transition to Za'atari, especially as she begins to share her art outside of her trailer. With the encouragement of a Za'atari art teacher, her sister Hoda, her father, and her best friend Treza, she decides to launch an art studio from her home trailer. Treza would manage it, and they would seek to share Malak's art widely.
Chapter 10 demonstrates how the three featured entrepreneurs’ ventures represent dignity for them, for the people they influence, and for the Za'atari community. Coming full circle, Yasmina prepares her apprentice Mona for her own wedding in what is a special, motherly moment. She speaks on the value of being able to train and encourage Mona over the years – of gaining an adoptive daughter through a mutual entrepreneurial passion. Asma is invited to speak at an International Women’s Day event in Za'atari. She is slated to speak last, after three celebrities and global human rights leaders. The doubts of her youth creep in slightly, but a now-confident Asma presents beautifully – to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. Conquering her own fears of publicity, Malak does an interview on a Jordanian radio show where she speaks boldly for herself and her community, helping dispel attitudes that Za'atari is a place where everyone should be pitied. For someone who once dreaded going to Za'atari more than anything she could have ever imagined, this moment of standing up as an advocate and leader within Za'atari means the world to her.
Chapter 6, "Khatwa, Khatwa" – Arabic for "Step by Step" – shares the three entrepreneurs’ stories of beginning to transform their ideas into reality and pushing through early obstacles. Yasmina hires a young and dynamic assistant, Mona, who becomes like a daughter to her. Together, the duo builds an initial client base and a collection of hilarious stories at the newly founded "Salon of Lights." Asma, with her educational books in tow, launches a community library and chases kids around her neighborhood, begging them to come listen to a story. After nervously practicing her storytelling techniques with Tamara and Maya, she officially launches the initiative – "Stories of the Sun" – from her newly decorated home trailer. After her first activity with the children, she learns just how much the experience of war has impacted their thoughts. Malak and her best friend Treza win their dream scholarship to study medical analysis at a university in Amman. Despite the importance of art in her life, Malak resolves to focus on her professional studies and to put art on the backburner. Still, she brings her art supplies with her in case she might have a bit of time to continue her first passion.