It all started with Baraka. In 2014, Taghrid Azzam took out a microfinance loan with UNRWA to buy a cow. She was named Baraka, or blessing. “She showered us with blessings,” the farmer from Sweida says. Taghrid started selling Baraka’s milk and applied for another loan and then another loan, to buy a second cow. “After taking out two more loans I also sold a calf. With the assistance of UNRWA, I was able to buy a third cow!” Four years and five loans later, she owns four cows, all of whom are pregnant, making her well on her way to her dream of owning a large farm.
Taghrid ran a small project with very little capital, explains Yara Abu Hamdan, the UNRWA loan officer who supports Taghrid and visits the farm regularly to check all is well. The micro-loan programme allowed her business to expand. “She started with a small loan of 25.000 SYP (EUR 42) in 2014, then she took out a loan for 40.000, and her last loan, her fifth loan, was for 250.000 SYP (EUR 420).”
Yara says that Taghrid is a model customer. She always pays on time, or even before her payment is due. And as soon as one loan is paid off, she applies for another loan to expand her business. She uses the money to invest in her business. “Whenever she applies for a loan, she uses it to buy a cow or fodder; things she needs for the cows and to develop her business.”
UNRWA operates one of the largest microfinance programmes in the country, providing more than 11,000 loans in 2017, valued at more than EUR 17 million. Since its inception in 2003, the UNRWA microfinance programme in Syria has distributed more than EUR 52, 4 million. It was also the first microfinance programme in the country to reach full operational self-sufficiency. The rate of repayment is over 99 per cent, making it the most sustainable UNRWA programme.
Like all operations in Syria, the microfinance programme has been affected by the Syrian conflict. In 2011, UNRWA employed 130 staff in six offices across the country. Between 2012 and 2013, four of its branch offices in the outlying suburbs of Damascus and Aleppo were destroyed or looted and were shut down. This included the largest branch, located in Yarmouk refugee camp. On top of that, half the microfinance department staff fled the country. Despite this the programme has continued, setting up new branches in Sweida and Latakia, and expanding its operations to provide more than 11,000 loans a year. The European Union is a generous supporter of the microfinance programme in Syria.
As she feeds her chickens, Taghrid Azzam reflects on how her cow rearing business has made a difference in her life. “It has allowed me to keep my children in school, and make sure nobody goes hungry,” she says. These UNRWA microfinance loans have empowered Taghrid to support her family and her community. Her husband helps out on the farm, and the family has also been able to employ an orphan from their village as a farm hand. With four cows grazing nearby, all of whom are pregnant, Taghrid expects her business to keep growing. As soon as she pays off her fifth loan, she plans to apply for another one. “In future, I would like to grow and apply for more loans, so that I can have a big farm!” she says, beaming.