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The Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, founded in November 2012 and hosted by the Aspen Institute, is a collaborative effort of over 70 artisan businesses, artisan support organizations, corporations, government agencies, and other partners who are working together to promote the full potential of the global artisan sector.  

The Alliance for Artisan Enterprise was created to elevate the importance of the artisan sector, support and grow artisan businesses, and share best practices in a collaborative learning community. 


UNHCR: Refugee Artisans in Lebanon

Natalie Deuschle

As the summer intern for the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and speaking with individuals and organizations who are passionate about elevating the artisan sector. One particular conversation challenged me to think about how to address the countless political and social conflicts that besiege artisan livelihoods.

Ms. Shalini Mehan, Livelihoods Consultant from our new member the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), recently came down to D.C. and presented the UNHCR innovative project which  focus on the intersection of arts and peace building, specifically with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Ms. Mehan’s passion for this field comes from her experience of living and working in the Middle East, where she started her own design project in Jordan for a couple years and worked with artisans in Damascus. She met most of these artisans simply by going to the villages and visiting them.

Ms. Mehan briefed us on the current situation in Lebanon within the Syrian crisis and on the UNHCR artisan project.. Here’s what we learned:

Lebanon is a country of 4 million and is host to an additional 1.1 million Syrian refugees. There are no refugee camps, so refugees reside throughout Lebanon.  Syrian refugees are also hosted in Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan. Globally, 50% of refugees are urban, and the average number of years that a refugee stays in his/her host country is a staggering 12 years.

As noted above, UNHCR has a million registered refugees in Lebanon. It records data about their skill set and what they did at home for a livelihood. An overwhelming number of the refugee population in Lebanon are women, children youth (women and children constitute around 80% of the refugee population), and female-headed households (30.5% of the refugee population).over (86,000) self-identified as artisans.

The sheer mass of these refugees presents many challenges for a host country.  A particular challenge in this context where one out of every four people in Lebanon is a refugee is the ability to earn an income. In Lebanon, 72 sectors of work are deemed by the government as areas for Lebanese citizens only.  Despite Lebanon not being a signatory to the Refugee Convention, Lebanon has not only provided a haven for refugees but allows access to health, education and certain jobs (including for artisans). 

Despite the obstacles piled up in front of her work, UNHCR remains optimistic that there is hope and a place for the arts to go hand-in-hand with social-cohesion Here are a few of UNHCR’s goals with this project:

1.      Create a sustainable market for local artisan work that also includes refugees, which would help them out of isolation and into the workforce.

2.      Identify different value chains and what is viable on a global market, all the while doing what is ecological, simplified, mass-producible, and inclusive of local communities.

3.      In a culture that is often more conservative, ,  UNHCR hopes to organize work for women at home, noting that most women have grown up learning how to fantastic embroidery.

4.      Forge partnerships with development actors and in doing so getting refugee livelihoods on the development agenda. Demonstrate the possible value-added of refugees to host country economies. . Ms. Mehan emphasized that Syrian refugees are people who offer real skills and valuable professions.

Artisans are working with the Lebanese, side by side, in a true gesture of easing the tension between the two communities and crafting a livelihood from their own hands.  

 Written by: Andrew Shi