By Refugee Women, with Love

A Toronto-based social enterprise brings hand-pressed soaps made by refugee women in the Middle East to North America. 

The Sitti Soap team at the Women’s Centre in Al Jerash Refugee Camp, Gaza.
(Photo provided by Sitti Soap)

Noora Sharrab and Jacqueline Sophia are co-founders of Sitti Soap, a social enterprise that educates, employs and empowers women from the Jerash “Gaza” refugee camp in Jordan, by bringing lifestyle products such as hand-pressed olive oil soaps created by refugee artisans to North America. LiisBeth recently spoke to the cofounders about their venture.

LiisBeth: How did you both come to work with the refugee community in the Jerash camp?

Jacqueline Sophia: I’d come to Jordan in 2011 as a Fulbright fellow. Initially, I was there to take on a very academic approach to my time, looking at the third-party response to gender-based violence in the capital. That quickly changed. I had experienced a lot of pushback and cultural barriers to those conversations. It was and still is a very taboo topic. But in the meantime, a friend of mine put me in touch with someone who was working with the refugee community in Jerash camp. They had known I had a background working with the refugee community resettled in Baltimore City during my time at university. They said, why don’t you go to this community? They’re looking for a volunteer yoga instructor. And so, I contacted them and I said I’d be happy to volunteer.

Noora Sharrab: My parents were born in Gaza. I was born in Dubai, and I grew up here in Canada. When I decided to do my master’s program, I actually went and did my primary research in Jordan. And that’s where I dived right in with the refugee community. I did a specialization in refugee and forced migrations. I was really interested in learning more about Palestinian refugees. And as a Palestinian myself and as someone who didn’t grow up in a refugee camp, I was really interested in what it was like to identify being Palestinian but living out of a camp compared to someone who was a Palestinian but happened to live in a diaspora. 

LiisBeth: What inspired you to create Sitti?

Jacqueline Sophia: We had yoga classes [at the camp] and I got to really know the community that way. Over time, the women and I would begin to work on different enterprise ideas. They really wanted to earn more steady income for their families. And I think they saw me as a link to the market that existed for them outside of the camp—I was always coming back and forth from the capital Amman, and so we started working on different enterprise ideas.

We explored the idea of Palestinian embroidery, and selling that in the form of different clothing items. But it was very labour intensive—it took a lot of time and it was hard to control the quality. We were also looking at food production for a while, but that didn’t work out so well. Then one day, one of the women in the camp said she wanted to show me something. She opened the door, and there was this amazing smell of lavender. It was some 300 bars of olive oil soap.

Essentially what happened was the Italian embassy came in and did a soap making workshop with these women. But the embassy taught this workshop and then left, and so the women had all this soap and didn’t know how to market or sell it. In the meantime, I was introduced to Noora and she was doing the exact same thing with another group of women in the same camp. So we were like, let’s just work together.

Noora Sharrab:  It’s very common among development agencies and international agencies—they will come into these refugee communities, they’ll do this big workshop, this big training, and then they’ll leave. So you have these women who ended up being skilled, and it’s really hard for them to take it on from there. We know 8 out of 10 businesses that start end up failing within the first two years because they don’t have the right support, the mentorship and the capital. The resources available are very limited, let alone for a refugee trying to do this.

Sitti soap gift set

LiisBeth: What was the process of building Sitti?

Noora Sharrab: Shortly after we partnered up, we launched a women’s centre slash soap workshop because these women were making soap out of their homes. We wanted to be able to control the environment and control production and the manufacturing process, so we had to build a separate, dedicated area. We ended up creating a centre out of an existing home in the camp because we also wanted to make sure we remained in the camp—if we were to leave it would make it difficult for the women to access because commuting back and forth would be an added cost for them. We didn’t want to have them worry about that.

Shortly after we launched the women’s centre, I relocated back to Canada because I was having my second child and I wanted to be closer to family. At the same, Jackie also ended up moving out of Jordan. But both of us were like, we can’t stop this project because we both left. So we brought it [the business] with us. When I came to Canada, I ended up registering the company as an LLC.

Jacqueline Sophia: As for our team, there’s two employees on the ground in Jordan—Sophia is our regional manager and she oversees quality control. Amina is the facilities manager. And then we have our nine female artists and soap makers. They are a mix of regular employees, and then we have several part-time staff. The regular employees receive a regular salary every single month, and the part-time employees work on a project by project basis.

LiisBeth: What have been some of the challenges of working within a refugee camp?

Noora Sharrab: I don’t want to generalize all families and all communities because they’re not all the same, but there continues to be cultural sensitivities—to not have the woman out after dark or to limit them from travelling to the city. Some of them still need permission to be able to work and to be able to go to school to be able to go out. So, you still have that dynamic where having that male counterpart is important. When we first started the workshop, and we had recruited some artisans, it was very important for us to get family approval for these women. Not in a sense like they need permission, but we wanted their families to feel comfortable and to feel like their daughters, their mothers, their wives were coming into a safe space.

For us—Jacqueline and I—we were seen as these foreigners who came in and opened the centre. And even though I am Palestinian, and I am originally from Gaza, and from an identity perspective, I could relate—I’m still that foreigner that lived abroad, that spoke differently, that wasn’t part of the community from that sense. So building the trust and building that credibility and transparency in the community was fundamental.

LiisBeth: Why did you choose to work with women refugees?

Noora Sharrab: When Jackie and I came together, we realized that this was not about the soap. This was about the resiliency of these women who—for some of them—it was the first time they ever got a job. Some were the sole breadwinners of their family, supporting eight to 10 people. It was like this one woman deciding, I’m not going to sit here in poverty. I want to do something about it. So, for us, we didn’t see the soap as the soap itself, we saw it as more than that.

Sitti continues to be about a mission that is about education, employment and empowerment. It’s about creating self-reliance for these women who for their entire lives have had to depend on aid and charity. How could we change that dynamic? How could we empower them?

LiisBeth: How has the pandemic impacted Sitti?

Jacqueline Sophia: I think this transition may have been easier for us than for some. We already had those communication pathways established as a remote team, so it wasn’t difficult to act quickly. We weren’t in a position where we had to say, how are we going to talk to each other on a weekly basis? So that was not difficult.

The difficulty [has been] that with a social enterprise, you don’t tend to have a lot of runway in place, and so when you experience a sudden socioeconomic downturn like we’ve experienced with a pandemic, you have to triage. Our concern, first and foremost, was our staff in Jordan, specifically in the camp. Priority number one was to ensure that they had enough income, enough wages to help support themselves and their families because as soon as the pandemic happened and the socioeconomic collapse happened, those women were the only breadwinners, they were the only wage earners in their families. So we worked with our online network of consumers and different partner organizations. We worked with another women-owned business in Canada, and we created a crowdfunding campaign to bring in enough funds to provide relief kits essentially to over 170 families in the camp who are most in need.

LiisBeth: What’s next for Sitti?

Jacqueline Sophia: We have a whole lifestyle product line that includes 10 or more products at any given moment, so soap is not the only thing we sell. That being said, it is what we do best. And so, at a time like this, it’s important for not just the refugee community, but for the global community to be very aware of the public-health concerns that include washing your hands every day. These are things that we’re certainly elevating in our messaging, and we’re working with other corporate partners and corporate clients too—to help them spread that message.

Most people in refugee communities are not earning a steady salary. They’re certainly not earning benefits. And there are structural barriers in place to prevent that from happening. As a company there are only so many things we can provide to our employees because of their refugee status. So, what we’re trying to do is encourage people who are willing to purchase our goods right now by saying, if you’re in a position where you can financially support us as a customer, maybe you can also support us from a charitable perspective. So, at checkout, for instance, can you offer an extra dollar towards a support fund for our employees?

We’re also working to release a crowdfunding campaign [later] this year that will serve several purposes. First of all, it will serve the immediate needs—as in the next 12 months or so. It’s meant to bring in the capital that we’ll need in order to kind of cushion the blow of the economic downturn, and provide wage support for all of our employees to help them continue to help the business continue to run at a reduced capacity.

Jacqueline Sophie: [The campaign will] support additional operational costs for us to pivot the business and create new products to bring to market that will be awesome. It will set us up for success when things do eventually bounce back.

LiisBeth: That’s awesome. Good luck with your venture and your campaign!


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