The Orenda Tribe: Shirts designed by children refugees and other at-risk kids

A social enterprise in Amman, Jordan is emboldening children refugees and less fortunate communities through art.

by Portia Ladrido

Zaid Souqi (rightmost) with volunteers and children refugees after a mural painting activity. © The Orenda Tribe

In psychotherapy, there is a field called art therapy that has gained some traction in the recent years. The process is often used as an alternative remedy for children and youths who face a diverse set of challenges – from childhood neglect to a sudden loss of loved ones.

The president of the American Art Therapy Association, Dr. Sarah Deaver, said in an interview with the Huffington Post that art has the ability to express things that cannot be articulated verbally. “That’s a huge advantage for people who don’t have the language to talk about what’s inside of them,” she added.

With the knowledge that art has the ability to transform individuals or help children, in particular, to show what they feel and think, an entrepreneur in Jordan, Zaid Souqi, developed a business idea that revolved around using art as a way for disenfranchised kids – specifically refugees and orphans – to improve their lives.

“More than 30 percent of Jordan’s population are foreigners and most of them are refugees. We have Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees, Libyans, Yemenis, and Sudanese. There are a lot of refugees so I thought it is the place to start The Orenda Tribe art because of this,” Zaid explained.

The beneficiaries of the enterprise thoroughly enjoying the art workshops. © The Orenda Tribe

Orenda is a native American word that signifies “a mystical force present in all people that empowers them to affect the world, or to effect change in their own lives.” As the company’s mission is to embolden children through art, Zaid felt it was fitting to name the company with this highly symbolic word.

The social enterprise sells 100 percent organic cotton T-shirts, which have imprinted artworks made by children living in refugee camps. Besides the shirts, he also does beautification projects and art workshops in refugee camps and at-risk communities. The company started over a year ago, on May 2016, and they have since ensured that even their supply chain has a social aspect.

“Besides the shirts which are 100 percent organic cotton, the dye is also organic and water-based, and the packaging is recycled. I’m now studying a way to move the manufacturing to a local community in Jordan so we can empower the people in the community, give them a living, and employ them,” he said.

The idea generation for the business idea was not an easy process, however. Zaid had to go through years of work completely unrelated to his advocacy now before he had the gradual revelation that social entrepreneurship was his way towards a purposeful life. A computer systems engineering graduate at the University of Bristol in the UK, he worked at banking immediately after that, had a stint at a logistics company, did his MBA in IE Business School in Madrid, and worked again as a general manager for a logistics company.

When he was doing his MBA, he had an internship with a South African foundation in Johannesburg that helped vulnerable children, and it was during this time that he felt he needed to pursue an enterprise that did a positive, meaningful impact within his community.

“I lived there for 3 months and it was an amazing experience. It changed me a lot. I loved the social work and I loved the entrepreneurship at the university. This environment really helped create the Orenda tribe,” he recalled.

Zaid with a freshly painted mural. © The Orenda Tribe

The Orenda Tribe t-shirts are available in premium department stores in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Saudi Arabia among others. Zaid is currently figuring out how to penetrate the e-commerce industry, as the clothing industry is quite saturated and it would need more financing to pay for the brand’s online advertising. It’s also been a constant challenge for him to operate alone. He has been running the business without a partner, meaning he attends to all e-mails on orders, goes to the camps himself for the workshops and mural activities, presents pitches by himself to cosignatories and organisations, and all other business operations that need attending.

Despite these day-to-day challenges, what has kept him going is his motivation to help children refugees and underprivileged communities through art. When the business is stripped down to its basics, it is this mission to help that is at its core. Their first mission took place at Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, which is known to be one of the most populated camps in the world with 80,000 Syrian refugees.

“Our first project was made actually before we sold the first t-shirt. I went to Save the Children Jordan, I pitched my idea of doing art workshops and beautification projects, we signed a contract, they took the approval from the people in the camp, and then we went in and did the activities,” Zaid said.

The children with the newly painted wall in their community. © The Orenda Tribe

After this first activation, he also carried out art workshops at the Jerash camp, also known as the Gaza camp in Jordan, which currently houses 29,000 Palestinian refugees and is the poorest camp in Jordan according to a Fafo report. Schools for orphaned children in Jordan are among The Orenda Tribe’s beneficiaries as well.

“One time, we were doing an exercise and kids were supposed to draw their favourite place or the place where they’re the happiest. One of the girls drew herself drawing art and that was amazing to see,” he said with a thoughtful pride in knowing that in one way or another his brand is not only helping children express their internal dialogue through colourful shapes and figures, but also that his brand is able to make the children happy.

The Orenda Tribe is currently designing an art curriculum for children within the camps and communities that they are currently involved with. Through this art curriculum, Zaid plans to improve problem-solving and communication skills in children through art, and teach the local community how to run the curriculum so they can do it themselves. Zaid also added that more beautification projects are in the works as this kind of activity promotes collaboration and cooperation between people.

The value of art may be hard to convey but it is stories like that of Zaid’s where you see the intangible positive difference that it creates.

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