Waste Studio was founded in Lebanon in 2006 as a sustainability-focused brand with up-cycling at their core. Their first products were bags made from discarded advertising banners. Over time, they added home decor items to their range, each of which focused on using recycled materials whilst maintaining a focus on ensuring aesthetic, modern designs.
Since joining MADE51 as a social enterprise partner, Waste Studio works with Syrian refugee artisans. Wafaa is one of those artisans and this fall she took some time to answer some questions we had for her about her work at Waste Studio and her journey to get there.
Tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Wafaa. I’m from Syria. I have been in Lebanon for around 10 years. I’m 45 years old and I have 3 boys.
I used to work in sewing. I had a clothing store and a sewing workshop in Syria. It all got destroyed during the war and we came to Lebanon 10 years ago. Our lives changed forever. We used to provide jobs for people, now we need jobs.
"Our lives changed forever. We used to provide jobs for people, now we need jobs."
When did you come to Lebanon and who did you come with?
I came here in 2012 with my husband and 3 kids. The eldest was 14-15 years old back then. We’ve been here in Beirut for 10 years.
I tried moving to other areas but I couldn’t adapt. I found Beirut to be the most beautiful of all. Possibly because I’m a city woman and I couldn’t get along with the village woman. I was able to adapt more with the city atmosphere rather than the village.
How did you feel when you were forced to flee your country?
Our country, our family — the problem is, each one of us went their separate ways. We desperately tried getting news about each other, especially when phones got stolen. We had each others’ numbers memorised, but had forgotten them all due to the shock. We used to hold on to whoever still had their phones to ask for our family members’ phone numbers. Just give me my father and mother’s phone numbers, I have truly forgotten them, I feel like I have Alzheimer’s.
I just wanted to check up on my family. Are they still alive, or is my dad still conscious? I received news that my father got shot and passed away, that my father didn’t leave the house but was attacked and killed at home. I broke down. Then, thankfully, the news was all rumours. My father was alive, but so many others who remained in the country were killed.
When we went back to check on our houses, they were all raided and burnt down. A lifetime’s worth of hard work and effort had all gone to waste. Our socioeconomic situation was thankfully beyond excellent when we came here, and to say we reached below zero is an understatement.
We reached thousands of degrees below zero. You have to rebuild everything all over again, create a new living all over again, find a job and find capabilities. I had to drop my two older sons from their schools, even though they were on top of their class, in order to work and help their father so we could live.
"You have to rebuild everything all over again, create a new living all over again."
Now I have my youngest son enrolled in school and I always tell him that he’s my hope — that if he ever wants to sadden me, he’d stop studying, because education is a red line for me. Education is a must — I grew up, got married, and still completed my education and got my university degree. I really feel sad for my boys because they never got the chance to achieve what they have always dreamed of. We had a sewing factory, I provided jobs for a few women and I used to work with them. I had a clothing store.
How did you learn your artisanal skills?
When we were kids, we used to watch my mother and grandmother working on crochet and embroidery at home. They used to see pieces that they liked at the store, but not a 100% their taste, and recreate them.
Our curiosity as kids made us sit around and watch them work. Later on, I decided to upscale this profession so we started a small workshop at home. I later rented out a shop and I started working there with my sisters. We then upscaled the business to include more ladies with us, working in embroidery in addition to sewing. Our business kept on growing to encompass not only house wear, but also casual outfits and wedding dresses. I also opened my own clothing store which included everything one might need, in addition to the pieces that we made ourselves. Basically the store was around 3 stories with everything displayed there.
The environment was very family like — not a workplace kind of environment, or a boss-employee kind of relationship. We were all like a family. If one of us wasn’t able to work, another would cover for her. If one of us didn’t know how to do something, another would teach her. If one of us had a great idea I haven’t thought of, I would adopt the idea and work on it. We were a small family.
Tell us about your current work in Lebanon.
I know how to sew, I know crochet, some Etamin, Palestinian embroidery. I also know some inner and outer curtain embroidery. Everything that is related to house decor embroidery, I used to make it at home, and later at our factory.
Here [at Waste Studios] we are doing flower embroidery and other kinds such as Etamin and Palestinian embroidery. Currently we are creating holiday themed embroidered flowers, in addition to embroidery on bags...
In addition to this, I continued my education and got my degree in Nursing. I worked in this profession for a while at Al Muwasah hospital but then stopped when I got married and had kids. I only worked as a nurse as a humanitarian service. I also provide such services here in Lebanon for neighbors and friends. I also recently got a certificate from Balamand university specialized in Elderly care.
How do you feel about the work you are doing?
The work I’m doing isn’t solely important to me, but also to every lady working here at the workshop, because it is providing them with an income in the light of the difficult economic situation that the country is going through. That has reached the [Lebanese] just like it has reached others living in the country— the difficult economic situation, the increase in dollar exchange rate. So this job is providing us with a somehow acceptable income that one can benefit from, alongside their family. In addition, we are gaining so much experience within our field and benefiting from each other’s knowledge and expertise inside the workshop.
How is it working with other women?
It’s a really nice feeling, first of all it feels like working with a family instead of a place that bothers you. Sometimes, you work at a place that restricts you, you cannot talk or breathe, you experience racism and bullying. This is not the case here, we are one family, there are no differences between us despite the difference in age and culture.
"Here, we are one family, there are no differences between us despite the difference in age and culture."
We are always trying to adapt and be there for each other — a family-like environment where we love and care about each other. If one of us was passing through something, we are always there for each other, we are hand in hand despite the our circumstances inside and outside our homes.
How are you trying to be a role model for your kids?
There’s an Egyptian saying that implies that an unoccupied hand is useless. This is what the Egyptians say, and what I personally believe too.
A person should never sit around doing nothing, rather one should always remain occupied and constantly seek to learn new things. A person should learn what he does not know, because no person is born with knowledge about everything. As the proverb says; “I know one thing over the other, and I know a thing about everything.”
I always like learning new things so I could have knowledge about everything. My boys have grown to become just like me. For example, my 24 year old son knows how to work at a bakery, knows how to work as a butcher, and simultaneously, he learned to worked with technology on his own, not through any school or institution. He knows how to fix phones and install softwares, all through watching YouTube videos after coming home from work.
My boys have become just like me, just like our mom likes to learn everything, we want to learn everything as well. Just like our mom likes to remain occupied no matter what stands in her way, we want to remain occupied. I don’t know if I was able to deliver the message properly or not, but I think what I was trying to show them that they should always be working, because the one who doesn’t will not gain anything. We were never used to asking anyone for anything, we learned to stand on our own feet. This is the reason that pushed me to drop my kids out of school, because we were never used to asking for help.
What would you like to say to those customers who have purchased your ornaments?
I would like to thank them for buying our products because you are not only helping one person, you are helping families who are working hard to get an income with the price of a flower or a handmade product you are buying.
You are helping us and we really thank you, and truly if they weren’t people of taste, they wouldn’t have bought a handmade piece because machine-made pieces are all over the stores... So every person who buys our pieces would be artistic and a person of taste, because these pieces are worked on wholeheartedly — they have taken a part of our soul, a part of our eyes, a part of our effort.
"These pieces are worked on wholeheartedly — they have taken a part of our soul, a part of our eyes, a part of our effort."
We are not only creating these pieces by hand to gain profit, but we are putting our hearts and souls into it for it to look beautiful. When we create a piece and it doesn’t appeal to us, we break it apart and create it all over again so it appeals to us first — to ensure that the customer would fancy it as well.
What is your dream?
My dream is to compensate my children because they weren’t able to continue their education or create a future for themselves. My dream is for them to travel and gain resettlement...It’s true that they are currently working and are trying to achieve their dreams, but they will not be able to in the light of current circumstances that surround [Syrians]. If your residency wasn’t present, this restricts you from doing so many things. Additionally, if you did not have a work permit, this would affect you. Also work permits currently cost a lot for Syrians. For this reason, we wish we could travel to Canada.
You’d find us at home trying to learn and practice the English language, just in case we were called to any country so we could manage and surmount the language hurdle. This is truly our dream, and I wish I could move there and establish my own factory just like the one we have here up there in Canada or in Europe, God willingly. This is my dream and my children’s dream, we really wish you could help us make it a reality.