Sitti Supports Refugees in Jordan Through Olive Oil Soap
Updated: Oct 30, 2019
Remember back in elementary school when teachers drilled it into our still-soft skulls that Canada is a multi-cultural mosaic where all people live in perfect harmony? I don’t love the fact that I was subjected to such fake news at that young an age, but the whole mosaic thing was definitely comforting to my child-sized brain as it was trying to figure out how to fit in with my classmates. So for those of you who come from immigrant families, Noora Sharab’s story will be sure to resonate.
Born in Dubai, Noora moved to Canada as a young girl part of the far-reaching Palestinian diaspora. She remembers constantly trying to figure out where she would be able to fit into a place where there wasn’t a single other Arab or Muslim person around. Remember in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when that girl starts making fun of Toula’s moussaka lunch, calling it “mouse caca”? That scene cut me deep, and Noora also recalls similar experiences of being forced to explain her family’s unique foods and holidays to the other kids who had never met people with the traditions that they had. As a kid, it was difficult being the odd one out. But in retrospect, Noora and I agree that the joke’s on them; everything is better than your bleached Wonder Bread, Stacy.
It took Noora a really long time to figure out where she belonged in the world, but unlike my entire Instagram feed, she did not book a one-way-ticket backpacking trip across South East Asia to go “find herself”. Instead, she travelled back to the areas of the Middle East that she had felt deeply tied to her whole life. But even there, she felt out of place. It’s the classic immigrant experience: in Canada, you’re not quite Canadian enough, and when you go home, people never treat you like the authentic local you think you are.
“A lot of people will define you based on just your exterior without digging a little deeper about your experiences and what brought you to what you are,” Noora explains. But in reality, we’re all actually pretty out of place.
At the risk of sounding too much like a Carrie Underwood song, home is where the heart is. It’s up to us to figure out how we fit into the spaces that we find ourselves in. For example, as a west coast transplant, do I feel like it’s natural to exist in a place where people get bizarrely competitive about the brand of outdoor gear they own? Hell to the no. But I can go to the beach year round, so this is my home now.
Similarly, Noora realized she actually identified with lots of places and spaces, all of which felt like they made up different parts of who she is.
“It took a long time to embrace and be proud of… This is who I am, this is the beauty of my culture, this is the beauty of my identity - take it or leave it.”
While completing her Master’s degree, Noora moved to Jordan to conduct research for her thesis. It was there that she started her first non-profit, dedicated to providing Palestinian refugee women in Jordan with scholarship opportunities to pursue their academic and professional aspirations.
With an organization staffed completely by volunteers, Noora remembers learning her next lesson about the power of the human spirit. She and her colleagues forged a sense of community with the refugee women that she had never experienced before. Just a group of homegirls working together to achieve their goals and make the world a better place... Sound familiar?? ;)
“If you expect more good out of people, you’ll get more good out of them.”
However, it wasn’t long before she got lectured by a woman who lived in one of the camps where she was staying, giving Noora a big ol’ reality check on her privilege as a Canadian researcher using the refugees for her Master’s thesis. Don’t worry Noora, I used to think I was going to spend my life building houses and wells in low-income countries until I realized that - shocker - I did not in fact know the first thing about building houses or wells in any kind of country, especially not one that wasn’t my own.
It was after some reflection upon her intentions that Noora began Sitti Soap. Along with her co-founder, Noora brought on refugee women who were trained in cold-pressed olive oil soap. They produced bars of soap that would not only fly off of the shelves of places like Whole Foods, but would provide a steady flow of income for women who were supporting multiple generations of family members.
“It wasn’t just about the soap that was being made, it was more about these resilient women that really wanted to make more out of their lives,” she explains.
Sitti means ‘my grandma’ and it is a testament to the brand’s focus on heading back to our roots. Today, with small kids of her own, Noora co-runs the company from Toronto and travels back to Jordan when she can, but remains committed to instilling her unique and precious cultural values in the lives of her children - delicious Palestinian dishes included. I just hope they appreciate it, because remember Wonder Bread Stacy? Well she now pays $26.99 for a beet hummus appetizer and four pieces of microwaved pita bread because she was deprived of the good stuff as a child. Be grateful for what you have, kids!
It was also extremely important for Noora to build Sitti Soap’s brand in a way that would mitigate the negative stigmas surrounding refugee camps and products that get made there. She didn’t want people to make it a pity purchase, but instead knew the brand could reflect authenticity and share the stories of the women while also producing excellent quality soap.
Years later, the same sentiment remains entrenched in Sitti Soap’s business model. “In the entire process, the whole intention with our impact was to provide employment,” Noora says. With units sold in the hundreds of thousands, the goal is still about making sure the working refugee women have a sustainable flow of income to support their families. The conservative growth strategy has been consciously adopted by the company to ensure they don’t outrun themselves while still keeping up with growing demand for their product.
Watch the video above to learn more about the sweet Noora Sharrab and her incredible social enterprise!
Written by: Hannah Geiser