‘Things Could Get Crazy’

Outside of Amman, refugee women are dealing with waste one tote at a time

By / December 2018

The women’s center in Talbieh sits at the end of a narrow road, across from a brightly painted elementary school, near a tiny traffic circle with four tired-looking palm trees. From one to three every Sunday afternoon, a group gathers in the center’s ground-floor meeting room. Several women in headscarves, chattering and joking, and a soft-spoken British man bend over a notebook filled with sketches and vocabulary lists in Arabic, ideas he wants to create and the words he has to say to make that happen.

The man’s name is Tom Whitehead; the women, Palestinian and Sudanese, are residents of Talbieh, a UN-administered refugee camp established in 1968, located about 35 kilometers south of Amman. Together they are Shantet Sabaya (“Bag by the Ladies”), a new Jordanian brand intent on keeping single-use plastic bags out of landfills by transforming them into sturdy, fashionable totes. And plastic bags are something Jordan’s streets, fields, and empty lots are not lacking.

“The streets are full, full, full!” says Ishraqa Ata, one of Shantet Sabaya’s designers. Ata, a Sudanese agricultural engineer who settled in Jordan in 2007, says she didn’t notice the plastic around her until she started working with this project. Since then, bags jump out at her wherever she goes.

“You just walk around and you see them like tumbleweeds,” Whitehead says of plastic bags, which have been nicknamed Jordan’s national bird. “They’re everywhere, stuck in the trees. Every time you go to a supermarket, if you buy one thing they’ll put it in a bag, if you buy two things they will put both things in a bag.”

Since this unlikely group coalesced in late June, Ata and Shantet Sabaya’s five other designers have been using plastic collected from friends, family, and neighbors to design and create reusable bags. Their goal is to make two bags each every week. Whitehead then sends them to Shantet Sabaya’s main market, a bookshop in England.

As of today, Shantet Sabaya’s market may be widening. Before their weekly “quality control” check—where Whitehead scrutinizes each completed piece, checking for loose handles, dented grommets, missing labels—he tells the women about an art gallery in Amman that’s offered to buy 50 of their bags, if they’ll lower the price to eight Jordanian dinars a piece. It’s a sizeable profit decrease—the bags are usually valued at 10 JD—but it’s an income guarantee, and 100 percent of the profits go to the craftswomen.

Whitehead’s vision for Shantet Sabaya is to help the environment by reusing waste, while at the same time providing income for refugees, something he doesn’t see often. Often people will buy handicrafts out of compassion for the maker, Whitehead explains, but it’s rare to see something made by refugees that is genuinely desirable, useful, and affordable. Add the environmental piece, and you’ve got what Whiteheads calls “the double whammy.”

“People don’t have many opportunities to do things like this,” he says, noting that “people have a hunger for things now that are both sustainably produced and ethically made.”

Whitehead and his wife came to Jordan for her job about a year ago. While applying for work in his field of structural engineering, he spent time studying materials and concepts presented by Precious Plastic, a global project that champions repurposing plastics. Sustainability was something he cared about. As part of his master’s dissertation, he’d worked on a low-cost water filter to be used in the Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan.

The idea of reusing single-use plastic bags captured him. Whitehead experimented at home and produced a sturdy grocery bag from the purportedly “biodegradable” grocery bags that fill the edges of Jordan’s landscape. These same bags, he says, were recently banned in the EU because they essentially disintegrate into plastic sand. Whitehead then developed a hands-on course in bag-creation, and through a connection with a local NGO, taught a workshop at the women’s center in Talbieh in April 2018.

Recycling plastic is a new idea for people in Jordan, says Adeeba Abdul Kareem Ashtiwi, Shantet Sabaya’s seamstress. Though people are used to reusing clothes, the idea of recycling plastic, glass, or paper has yet to catch on. People hear in one ear and the information goes out the other, she says.

“Our society thinks, ‘Bags? Who will buy them? Who will want to use them?” Ashtiwi says. She’s responded to people’s comments by saying, “Our society doesn’t accept this idea, but there are others that do.”

Ashtiwi, a Palestinian who’s spent her whole life in Talbieh, was not a part of Whitehead’s initial bag-making workshop, but as a seamstress, her contribution to Shantet Sabaya is vital. After the other women create the pieces of tote bags in their homes—a process that involves fusing several layers of plastic sandwiched between parchment paper with a hot iron—Ashtiwi takes the pieces and sews them together, using an industrial machine at another center where she is a sewing instructor.

Whitehead acknowledges the tension of coming from the west with ideas about environmental care and trying to get people in dire financial situations to apply them. You can’t just charge in and tell people, “You need to change the way you live because it’s bad for the environment,” he says. “You want to incentivize them and say, ‘Actually, there’s all of this waste. If you use that in the right way, you can create a lot of value.’”

While it’s easy for Shantet Sabaya’s team to get caught up in designing and creating bags, Whitehead takes small opportunities to educate. He tells the women how in the UK, customers must pay for plastic bags. With no national recycling system and just a few privately run recycling centers in Amman, a city of more than four million, he wants people to understand that recycling isn’t necessarily the answer.

“Recycling is great,” he says, “but this is kind of going up a level, in terms of the energy being used. Reusing it is so much better. The way to kind of solve the global issue, it won’t be to just recycle everything. It will be to change the culture and to change the way we use plastic.”

Ata says that she loves caring for the environment, so when she first heard about the bag-making workshop, she was drawn in by the environmental piece. But she also says there are personal benefits to working with Shantet Sabaya, besides the extra income.

Before, if she had free time at home, Ata would often spend it thinking about her problems. Now she works on her designs and creating bags. When she’s working, she’s not thinking about her problems, but focused on how to put colors and pieces together, how to solve any issues she encounters, and the joy of a finished product.

“All my time is full now,” she says with a big smile.

Because she teaches sewing as her full-time job, sitting at the sewing machine is routine for Ashtiwi. However, she agrees with Ata, saying that handwork—in her case, cross-stitching traditional Palestinian designs—is calming and brings a sense of accomplishment. “I feel like, when I make something, I have achieved something,” she says.

Whitehead is delighted that the women enjoy the work so much, especially since, at the beginning of the project, they’ve invested a lot more time than profits. He enjoys seeing the designs they bring in each week, some of them “works of art.” Going forward, he plans to help them focus their creativity, reproducing the best designs and playing with the subtleties within them.

One of Shantet Sabaya’s designers recently moved to Mufraq, a city in northern Jordan, and has started teaching bag-making techniques to Syrian refugees. In September, Whitehead, Ata, and Ashtiwi were able to share about the project in one of Talbieh’s public schools, and the students there have started to collect plastic for Shantet Sabaya. Meanwhile, Whitehead is exploring funding options to purchase a sewing machine, so they don’t have to rely on the one at Ashtiwi’s work. For a tiny start-up in an economically strapped region, the future looks bright.

“Once we have a sewing machine and this waste plastic partnership with the school,” Whitehead says, “things could get crazy.”


Heather M. Surls is a writer in Amman.