Beirut – A small crowd of people gathered in Beirut recently to browse an unusual array of products, from a chandelier composed of empty wine bottles, to seats made of old clothes and fabric, sewn together and stretched across empty barrels.
Beirut’s ongoing rubbish crisis has become an opportunity for a group of Syrian women, who have converted discarded corkscrews, aluminium containers and egg cartons into a variety of items, from tables to photo frames. Their recycled products were offered for sale last month at the Glass Hall, a cultural centre connected to the Ministry of Tourism in Beirut’s bustling Hamra district.
“I think this type of craftsmanship can be a sort of business for us,” Lama, a 23-year-old Syrian woman with dark black hair and golden skin, told Al Jazeera. “This work can help us support our families.”
More than 1.2 million Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon amid the ongoing civil war in their home country. Many either rely on aid or face exploitation in the black market.
The ABAAD Resource Center for Gender Equality, a Lebanese NGO, realised that Beirut’s rubbish crisis presented a chance to address two problems at once. Last August, the organisation launched a programme to train Syrian women in craftsmanship and carpentry by using materials they could salvage from waste. A total of 70 women participated in 10 separate training sessions, with workshops held in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, the southern town of Tyre and a village in the Bekaa Valley.
Ramy el-Kaissy, the project officer for ABAAD, said that introducing the concept of reusable waste was in itself a major task.
“Our trainer worked with these women for three months. At first, they didn’t understand the benefits to recycling,” Kaissy told Al Jazeera. “But once they realised that they could make arts, crafts and furniture without paying any money to gather the supplies, they relished the task.”
Social conventions also posed a challenge for the women who participated, many of whom said they were criticised and verbally harassed for sorting through trash. They also recalled being mocked for performing what some considered traditionally “masculine” work.
Despite the social stigma, the women remained motivated to learn a skill that would ultimately make them more autonomous, said Roula Chamseddine, a Lebanese artist who spearheaded the workshops.
“They were so enthusiastic,” Chamseddine told Al Jazeera. “They wanted to see results. They wanted to help their families. But more importantly, they wanted to help each other succeed.”
Some of the programme’s participants lost their husbands to Syria’s war and are now struggling to provide for their families. According to the United Nations refugee agency, nearly one in four Syrian refugee families is headed by a single mother.
We are responsible for this work. And I think that if we keep learning, we can make this into a more sustainable business, together.
Acquiring the skills of craftsmanship and carpentry has given some of these women a measure of control over their own fates. Sohair, a 34-year-old Syrian refugee, said she has been able to benefit from the workshop because of her husband’s willingness to take care of their children at home.
“He doesn’t work regularly because of the laws here in Lebanon,” Sohair told Al Jazeera. “This workshop didn’t only help us find a way to make a bit of an income, but it has also given us some mental relief. I met women here that I would have never met before. It’s because of Roula. The way she treated us made us feel very comfortable.
“Doing this work isn’t only a value to myself, but it also has value to my children,” Sohair added. “I continue to learn, though I don’t have any formal education. I want my children to understand that it is never too late to learn.”
While the recent sale at the Glass Hall helped to raise some money for their families, Lama said the true value of the workshops should be measured by the skills the women have acquired. She said she was even contemplating teaming up with some of her peers to launch a small business.
“We are responsible for this work,” said Lama, looking proudly at the women who have become her colleagues and friends. “And I think that if we keep learning, we can make this into a more sustainable business, together.”