Noora is a Humanitarian and Social Entrepreneur of Palestinian origin. She runs social impact companies in Jordan and Palestine. Her company, Sitti Soap focuses on employing refugees, particularly women, in camps in Jordan and Palestine. Inspired by her multicultural upbringing, Noora has used her companies to explore issues of identity.
Noora was born in Dubai and moved to Canada as a young girl with her family. She completed her High School Education and a Masters in Political Science in Canada itself. As a kid, she said, “I remember constantly trying to figure out where she would fit into a place where there wasn’t a single other Arab or Muslim person around.As a kid, it was difficult being the odd one out.”
Noora was confused about where she belonged in the world due to her multicultural upbringing. During her Masters, when the opportunity arose, she chose the research topic, ‘Identity Issues with Palestinians’, for which she conducted her primary research in Jordan’s refugee camps. She travelled to areas of the Middle East that she felt deeply connected to her whole life. One day towards the end of her stay in Jordan, she was taken to an interview by a local social worker to meet two girls who had just lost their father. They had dropped out of school and were bitter and angry. She was politely trying to ask them some questions to understand their situation better. But this was the first time that her questions were greeted with such aggression. She recalled, “They called me selfish and criticised me for coming to collect my questions and then leaving for a better life while they had to stay where they were. I became depressed for a while after that; the encounter triggered some serious soul searching and led me to question everything I thought was right and reasonable. But it was a wake-up call. I realised there had to be more.”
After that encounter, she worked for the United Nations and founded an NGO, ‘Hopes for Women in Education, that provided specific scholarships to refugee women. She later worked for the same NGO, providing refugee women with internship opportunities. This was when she met Jacqueline Sofia, the co-founder of SITTI Soap.
Noora and Jacqueline witnessed the torment of the refugees, especially the Jerash Camp located in Jordan. The Camp was initially set up as an ’emergency camp’ in 1968 for almost 11,500 Palestine refugees and displaced families that left the Gaza Strip as a result of the Arab- Israeli war in 1967. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Jerash camp is the poorest among the ten Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, with 52.7 percent of Palestine refugees having an income below the national poverty line. Jerash camp also has the highest number of Palestine refugees who don’t have health insurance, with 88 per cent of refugees not covered by any health insurance at all.
Noora wanted to find a solution to their woes and was soon approached by a group of women residing in the Jerash refugee camp who were trained in the art of making handmade olive oil soaps. These women wanted Jacqueline and Noora to help them market and sell the handmade soaps. Wanting to lend a helping hand, Noora and Jacqueline soon started their own skincare company called SITTI Soaps.
The name SITTI means ‘my grandma’ in Arabic and is inspired by the traditions followed by our grandparents. They wanted to bring out the natural and traditional elements like the tale of every elder and their emphasis on natural products and homemade remedies.
Talking about SITTI, Noora explained, “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 continued, “We knew this brand was clean and had the potential to be completely up-to-par with commercial market standards, so of course we needed to differentiate Sitti from your average NGO that markets products because people feel sorry for their beneficiaries. We wanted to break the stigma that says because a product came from a camp, it isn’t very good. So we decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign, to promote this kind of messaging and to build brand recognition based on both product story and quality.”
The campaign helped with brand perception and visibility and also helped in raising capital to give the women a monthly salary as they built and tested the product as they advanced. With the support of generous individual donors and businesses across Jordan – they were able to pay for an old shack of a home in the Camp and renovate it into a full-fledged centre. A centre that gave Sitti soap women a proper working environment, professional equipment, and a space for more training.
SITTI has touched the lives and empowered many refugee women who were earlier shackled by debts and the refugee camps. Ikram’s story is a beautiful example. Ikhram’s husband was suffering from a chronic illness and was unable to work, and hence they accumulated a massive debt of medical bills. Ikram and her family of 13 were in no condition of repaying the amount. Ikhram soon joined SITTI Soap and paid off all her loans one at a time. Now Ikhram and her family are not only debt-free but can afford a good life.
Another example is the story of Nisreen, a mother of seven children, preparing for the eighth at the time. She is the sole breadwinner of the family as her husband has a disability. Working with SITTI has given her a renewed financial liberation.
In conclusion, Noora said, “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.”