Noora Sharrab started Sitti Soap to help women in refugee camps rise above the chaos and to create an identity beyond what is imposed on them.
by Aisiri Amin
In a world where women are often confined in the societal stereotypes, bound and burdened with familial ‘duties’, the women-led social enterprise Sitti Soap is breaking the age-old walls and supporting women in their journey to assert their individuality.
Founded by Noora Sharrab and Jacqueline Sofia in 2014, Sitti Soap is a women-driven organisation with all-female staff working towards employing and empowering young women in Jerash Refugee camp in Jordan.
‘Sitti’ means ‘my grandmother’ in Arabic. “Our company stems from the traditions of how our grandmother used natural ingredients and used to make everything by hand,” Noora Sharrab says.
At Sitti Soap, every soap is handmade with extra virgin olive oil and today it is a multi-national brand found in the shops across the Middle East and North America. But for the Palestinian women, it has helped them explore an important part of their identity, as they were stomped upon and pushed aside by the gendered society.
For instance, Seeham who fled to Jordan in 1967 and lives in the Jerash camp ever since found a sense of purpose outside the role of a mother by working as an artisan at Sitti Soap.
Co-founder and CEO of Sitti Soap, Noora Sharrab always admired the undeterred determination of the women in the refugee camps. They wanted to work, they wanted to support their families but lack of opportunities, especially for women, was a major hurdle for most.
Noora wanted to secure their future, help them put their skills to use and provide them with a platform to rise above the chaos around them. With this in mind, two like-minded inspiring young women Noora and Jacqueline teamed up to merge the disappearing Palestinian tradition of soap making with the modern marketplace and Sitti Soap happened.
Noora Sharrab talks to INKLINE about the soap making social enterprise, overcoming challenges and what future looks like for Sitti Soap.
I: Why a soap making enterprise to help refugees with employment? What was the inspiration behind it?
N: My co-founder Jacqueline Sofia and I both worked in the Jerash Refugee Camp in Gaza for years before we started the social enterprise.
We wanted to help refugees with employment because we knew that the refugee problem was a protracted situation that wasn’t going to disappear and it was only through employment opportunities that we can change the dynamic and socio-economic status of the people in the camp. We also realised that relying too much on humanitarian aid and charity won’t help and becoming financially independent through stable sustainable jobs is crucial.
I: You have said before that you always felt a special bond with the women in the Gaza refugee camp. Can you elaborate on that?
N: My parents were both born in the Gaza Strip in Palestine. I grew up learning of their hardship and how my grandparents had to leave to give them a better life because of the war conditions. The people of the Jerash ‘Gaza’ Refugee Camp are all descendants of the Gaza Strip area, who had to flee during the 1967 war and ended up in Jordan.
I see the difficulties the camp faces, simply because they are from Gaza, and that to me makes me feel a sense of responsibility to truly give back to the camp in that way.
I: What motivated you to start Sitti Soap?
N: Sitti was actually motivated by the women and artisans behind Sitti Soap. We were inspired by the women that were trained and skilled in Handmade Olive Oil Soap making that wanted to use their skills to really pull themselves (and their families) out of poverty. We saw it as an opportunity to create something beautiful while sharing their stories to the world.
I: Sitti Soap uses olive oil to make the products. Why olive oil in particular?
N: Olive Oil is locally harvested in Jerash and is a fundamental staple in the Middle Eastern Cuisine and household. Olive Oil has incredible benefits and is used in so many dishes in the Jordanian / Palestinian household.
Olive oil is very sacred in Palestine, and during the olive harvest season, extra olive oil was used to make soap. For as long as I remember, my grandmother was using Olive Oil Nabulsi soap to wash her hair and body.
I: Unemployment has been a rising problem in refugee camps and often skilled youth are forced to take up jobs they don’t like and skip school. How can that be changed?
N: By working with our youth to identify available job opportunities in the city or their locality, we can focus on ensuring they complete school while also enabling them with the right skills and tools they need to obtain employment more easily. They need to become more competitive in their skill set and to do that we have to work with them through effective counselling and skills and language development.
I: What has been the most uplifting part of your journey?
N: Seeing the artisans we work with on a daily basis, get up, make our soap with love and delicacy while also being the sole breadwinners in their families, guardians, mothers, sisters, daughters and community leaders. The women behind our soap inspire us to want to do more for them.
I: What has been the most challenging part of your journey?
N: Like any start-up or small-business the challenging part is getting to market, being ready to compete with major brands that have major funding backing them up, while we are here saying, look at us, we’re ready to beat major brands in the industry with our amazing products!
I: If there is one thing you could tell the young entrepreneurs around the world, what would it be?
N: Failure will happen. It’s never as easy and beautiful as it seems. No one has all the answers and it’s a constant learning process. If you believe and are passionate about your product or business, you have to give it your everything.
I: What does the future look like for Sitti Soap?
N: We hope to grow globally, have more retailers bring us on board, so we are able to expand our sales, while also working on our product development by expanding the product line we currently have. This includes adding other products inspired by the local traditions of the women at the camp.
Aisiri Amin is a journalist specialising in social justice, gender issues and culture. She has written for The Hindu and works as a freelance writer. Social wallflower and an idealist at the core, she lives on books, tea and hope (in that particular order).