SEEDS OF KNOWLEDGE SERIES: SOLUTIONARIES
Over many years, we have witnessed the displacement of humans due to conflict, migration, insecurity and recurring natural disasters. More often, an initial instinct is to offer immediate charitable aid. When news cycles move on, it seems the humans are left behind to rebuild with limited funding available. This is also when solutionaries give life to social justice and human rights issues. Please join me in welcoming the solutionaries of the SITTI team.
“Sitti is a conscious lifestyle brand committed to the self-reliance of refugee and displaced communities through long-term employment opportunities and skill development training, empowered by an inclusive global economy.” (Sitti). Meet Noora, Safiah and Jacqueline: the women behind SITTI [si’TEE]:
“sitti” (si-tee) …
… means “My Grandmother” in Arabic. Authenticity, inclusivity, community, self-reliance and sustainability are the values we inherited from our ancestors, passed down over generations. Sitti is a state of mind that transcends borders, rooted in tradition.” (Sitti).
NAVJOT: The social enterprise of Sitti is inspired by your work in a refugee camp in Jordan, filled with Palestinians seeking safety. What did you see and experience that fueled your commitment to uplift these families?
SITTI: Noora, Safiah and I each had different backgrounds working with small non-profit organizations and international aid agencies in the refugee community in Jerash Camp.
Noora and I connected when we were introduced to one another years after we both lived in Jordan. We both came across a few hundred bars of soap and a small group of determined women, led by our co-creator, Safiah. A workshop funded by the Italian Embassy trained several women in the camp how to make traditional olive oil soap without a heat source (cold-press method), but didn’t train them on how to market and sell the product beyond the camp. Noora, Safiah and I came together to figure out a way to build a small brand around the soap bars and sell them in Amman and our hometowns in North America.
Sitti grew from a shared determination and love for the community. It also came from a shared frustration with the momentary development projects that would run for a limited time, and then shut down once funding stopped and was redirected elsewhere.
We had equal parts experience in a failing system, and a desire to break the system. In 2014, when we started, there were very few social enterprises operating in Jerash Camp or working with the ex-Gazan refugee community. In part, it had to do with the limited rights of ex-Gazan refugees in Jordan and their social, as well as environmental isolation. In turn, so many incredibly talented and determined artisans were separated from a booming global market. We wanted to bridge the gap. And so far, we’re succeeding. Sitti products are sold globally and we work with a passionate, talented team of 31 people in Jordan’s refugee community.
NAVJOT: What does it mean to be a refugee for the Palestinian community in Jerash Camp? How does Sitti soap impact the lives of this community?
SITTI: I can’t say what it means to be a refugee in the Palestinian community, as I’m not a refugee, nor am I Palestinian. Even a Palestinian in the diaspora may not have an answer to that question, since their experience as a refugee or immigrant from Palestine would be uniquely their own. As is the case with many historically marginalized communities, the Palestinian refugee experience in Jerash Camp is often viewed as a monolith, but it’s the opposite. While there are many system-wide injustices that the collective ex-Gazan refugee community in Jerash must overcome everyday to a degree, “what it means” ultimately depends on the individual. Within the Palestinian refugee community there are so many intricate, unique experiences and feelings of identity depending on the person.
There is undoubtedly a strong sense of pride and community that runs through Jerash Camp, and we are so fortunate to be a part of that community. At the same time, the identity of each person in the camp and their lived experiences are unique and complex, just like any human being.
NAVJOT: Refugee families face countless hardships before they can even access support. Some of the artisans live with chronic health issues or disabilities, further impacting their access to earning a living wage. How does Sitti’s mission help provide relief from debt for these individuals?
SITTI: Sitti focuses on long-term employment and continuing educational opportunities as vehicles for refugee households to meet their needs in a sustainable way.
Debt in the refugee community often starts with inconsistent or unreliable work opportunities. Many refugees are not permitted by their host countries to work semi-skilled or skilled jobs that would provide a consistent income. Particularly if a host country is struggling to create employment for its citizens, they are less likely to create jobs with liveable wages for refugees arriving from somewhere else.
On average, 41% of households in Jerash refugee camp are indebted. This debt is mostly in the form of informal debt i.e. debt to relatives and friends, as opposed to debt to formal institutions, like a bank. Without access to consistent, long-term work opportunities, many refugees rely on more informal ways of taking on debt. This usually comes with a much higher and unregulated interest rate if the debt isn’t paid off quickly. And debt like that can pile up fast.
Imagine a credit card with a very high interest rate being your only way of ensuring that groceries are paid, or rent. That experience is not just logistically difficult, it is also emotionally and physically draining. Mounting debt can eventually lead to family members skimping on basic necessities for long term health, like balanced meals and preventative medicine. This is where we start to see chronic illnesses that are otherwise preventative. The ripple effect of inconsistent income reaches far and wide.
NAVJOT: The story of Hassan, an artisan who creates the Sitti wooden soap dish, captured my heart. My son is deaf, and so I appreciate accessible opportunities to thrive. Can you tell us more about Jerash Camp’s rehabilitation centre?
SITTI: The Jerash Camp Rehabilitation Centre (“The Community-Based Rehabilitation Centre,” “The Rehabilitation Centre” or “CBRC”) is a non- profit that works to integrate persons with disabilities into their communities, improve living conditions of disabled refugee persons and activate the participation of local communities in issues related to programs for the needs of persons with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Centre has been a Sitti CBO partner since 2016.
The CBRC works incredibly hard to create accessible opportunities to thrive for the disabled community in Jerash Camp. That being said, like so many community-based organizations that are refugee-led, there is a serious lack of access to unrestricted funding for these types of organizations. Many rely on grants and foundational support that come with limitations on how the money can be utilized and for what programs, regardless of what the community might need or what works best. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, international donor funding towards the refugee community dropped significantly, as donors pivoted their giving towards their own communities. CBOs that relied heavily on donor support, like The Rehabilitation Centre, saw up to 100% of their donor funding disappear in 2020. As a result, many were forced to make budget cuts or eliminate staff altogether. The Centre’s Carpentry Workshop became the primary (and at times, the only) source of unrestricted income for The Rehabilitation Centre’s programming and staff salaries. Through our partnership with the Centre, the CBRC was able to continue paying their staff through the first year of the pandemic, albeit at a reduced rate than usual. This is unfortunate, because workforce development programs for persons with disabilities in marginalized communities are part-in-parcel to building more self-reliant communities.
NAVJOT: You emphasize the message that the refugee experience informs but does not define their stories. How do social enterprises like Sitti move beyond momentary action?
SITTI: The refugee experience is a unique experience; it is so unique that we often begin to use the label “refugee” as a catch-all phrase for a community of people that is just as rich and complex culturally and emotionally as any other group of people. We often overlook this shared human complexity in momentary action.
Jerash Camp is an incredibly motivated community that is continuously given one-off handouts rather than sustainable, long term opportunities. We knew community wealth and economic growth was not going to come from these momentary actions. It needed to be rooted in consistent and long term sustainable development.
Our vision is an inclusive global economy where the refugee community has equal and fair access to the tools they need to become self-reliant. To achieve this requires a collective effort by social enterprises like ourselves, in concert with community-based and refugee-led organizations, local and state governments and policy makers, as well as private individuals and groups (angel investors, VCs) who are willing to make long term investments in the betterment of society.
NAVJOT: Finding a local, Canadian subscription box service that is woman-owned and packed with such an impact is a truly meaningful story! What can our readers expect in your Surprise Box?
SITTI: Each subscription box encapsulates a unique theme and purpose, while featuring a variety of premium products from the Sitti line. The upcoming box will include nine refugee-focused brands and their products, as well as Sitti’s premium saffron olive oil soap bar, made with sustainably-sourced saffron from Herat Province, an area of the country that the Taliban swept through back in July. The goal of our subscription service is to create a model that provides further sustainable and long term employment opportunities for the refugee community, while opening up opportunities for new job growth in the coming year. Just 4 annual subscribers equate to up to a month’s wages for a refugee individual and their family. Our goal is to sell 2000 annual subscriptions, which will provide long term employment and income generation for the entire team of 31 refugee individuals, including their families (200+ people) for an additional year. Each quarterly box is $150 per box, or $400 for an annual subscription and can be purchased here.
As the Sitti team was curating products for its quarterly box under the theme of refugee-led brands, A humanitarian crisis of incredible proportions unfolded and grew in magnitude and complexity in Afghanistan. International forces withdrew and the Taliban took control. As a small, yet committed organization to the global refugee community, we reached out to UNHCR Canada to make an even greater impact with the new subscription box. Just this week, we announced that Sitti will contribute $5 from each of our refugee-themed subscription box sales to UNHCR’s continued work for displaced Afghans.
Thank you for taking the time to share your story with us. I am so grateful to be able to feature incredible humans who are citizens of change. To learn more and support the social enterprise, please visit SITTI and follow them on Instagram.
If you are looking for a children’s book to talk more about the Palestinian experience, consider Baba, What does my Name Mean? A Journey to Palestine by Rifk Ebeid.