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More than soap: Sitti empowers refugee women and promotes ethical consumption

Noora Sharrab, co-founder and CEO of Sitti, a social enterprise that provides refugees in Jordan with fair-wage employment opportunities, speaks to womena®Media about ethical consumption and her commitment to humanitarian work. 

“We’re constantly trying to define what home is,” says Noora Sharrab, who is among the global Palestinian diaspora that has never been home but still connects deeply to her roots.

Founded in 2014, Sitti is a social enterprise that aims to employ, empower, and educate refugee women and girls through handmade goods. “The idea with Sitti is more than just women selling soap. It is the stories of these women, it is the resilience of these women, it is the positioning of where they are,” she says.

Based out of the Jerash Camp in Jordan, Sitti has an open-door policy and has trained over 50 women since its inception. Currently, they have five women working full-time, and what started with bars of olive oil soap has expanded to a 10+ product line ranging from skincare to other home goods available in stores across North America and the Middle East.

Olive oil soap is a product that has been around for decades, and so the most evident intention for Sitti as a brand was to provide the women they were working with a fair chance to contribute economically to their families in order to pay off burgeoning debt. 

“For me, empowering people through employment is the number one thing. The only way to lift people out of poverty is to work on long term, sustainable solutions,” says Noora. 

“We’ve seen these women change their perspective and become more positive towards life. As humans, we want to feel empowered, like we have control and are able to contribute positively.”

More than a decade ago before she co-founded Sitti, Noora visited Jordan, a country that is a host to millions of refugees, predominantly Palestinian at the time. “I was interested in how refugees that have to leave their homes and end up living in refugee camps defined who they are. As for me, I wasn’t a refugee. I knew what home was, but I couldn’t be home, and even if I went home does that define who I am?” she muses. 

In 2010, while working on the ground with the refugees in Jordan, Noora founded her international NGO, Hopes for Women in Education, a non-profit initiative that supports underprivileged, non-status refugee women post-secondary education with scholarships, training, mentorship and internship placements.

Four years later, she was approached by a fellow team member, bearing a box of olive oil soap and a request for her help in selling them. “An international government entity had come in and was offering a particular training in cold-pressed olive oil soap making. They provided training for 10 or 20 women and they went through the program making tons and tons of soap,” she recalls.

It’s often a difficult reality to digest, but skills don’t guarantee income, especially for undocumented refugees. The women left the training with the skills to make the soap from a very expensive commodity, but unable to sell them for a profitable price in the markets of Amman.

Noora was soon introduced to her co-founder Jacqueline Sofia, who at the time was also trying to help the women sell soap. “I’m a big believer that if you’re working in the same field with the same intention, you should bring those energies together because we can do a lot more when we put our minds together.”

At first, Sitti was faced with some barriers, mainly having to fight the stigma around refugees and the products that they were making. “People were under the impression that the soap was made from cheap materials and would be bad quality but the soap is made from premium olive oil locally sourced in Jordan and is handmade with immense love, care, and patience,” says Noora. 

“My thinking was, what makes this any less worthy? Why isn’t this soap bar just as good as a bar you would grab off of a boutique in France?”

Their broader client base made them reassess several aspects of the business. Increasing demand for sustainability and zero waste means retail clients want to be associated with brands that are more environmentally conscious. For Sitti, this meant having to find expensive alternatives to things such as plastic packaging. 

However, the cost of these alternative solutions coupled with locally sourced quality materials and fair wages for workers equals a higher price tag, which larger clients such as hotels and businesses are less willing to pay for compared to more mass-produced chemical-based soaps. 

“I have a lot of people say that Sitti is amazing, but then I’m like okay, but is it amazing enough for you to make a purchase?” questions Noora. “It’s about creating that ripple effect.” 

Consumers being more knowledgeable, addressing and asking the right questions is good progress. But it has to go even further, says Noora, to making conscious decisions about buying ethically and perhaps paying a little more knowing it aids the struggling workforce behind the process. 

“We can’t ask big companies in fast fashion industries to be more ethically sourced and fair traded but still want to buy the shirt at $5. We have to be realistic with what we are asking, and understand that as consumers we have an impact directly on our economy,” explains Noora.

As a mother of three, Noora finds herself with a never-ending to-do list. “The drive to constantly do something is what motivates me to push forward, it could be a bad thing,” she says humorously. “I have a very supportive husband, it’s important that we don’t do it alone. As women, it’s important to lean on each other and ask for help.”

In the coming years, Noora hopes to expand Sitti in the region and hire more women in these refugee communities while replicating this model in other communities in order to create more employment opportunities. Check out their website here – https://sittisoap.com/