Just outside Jordan’s bustling tourist precinct of Aqaba lies Mahdood, a crowded suburb, home to Green Creations - a program that provides a space for women to exercise their creativity by crafting jewellery and accessories from recycled glass and paper.
Green Creations was launched in December 2009 by Luke Glaze of the US based non-government organisation (NGO) World Associates. It was looking to provide an incentive for women who were orphaned, widowed, divorced - or in an unstable personal situation - to be financially independent.
The viable tourism market in Aqaba provided grounds for a niche business, which now employs these women as artisans. They are trained how to make beads, jewellery, bags, bowls, purses and baskets from recycled materials - all by hand.
An artisan’s day begins in a familiar manner.
“First you have to drink coffee,” one said with a grin. “We’re a family here, more than a job. We talk, we work, we drink coffee all at the same time.”
Due to their personal circumstances, these women are reluctant to be photographed or named. But they say their lives have been transformed since they started at Green Creations.
For me, my personality has started to be very, very strong. I learnt English. In the beginning I didn’t say any word, now I speak.
Green Creations Holistic Development Manager Jo Whitelaw, translates some of the other artisans' stories.
“It’s changed her life a lot, some of it was because it gets her out," she said of one. "[The work] gives her a fresh perspective, they have become a family together. At first it was a job, but it has grown and developed over time."
The theme of family not only resonates with the artisans but also with their current program director, Stephen Schelander. “This is our employee base and this is our family," he said. "The overall focus is ‘how do we benefit our community’ or ‘how to promote people’s well-being’."
Mr Schelander explains the situation on the outskirts of the tourist city: “There’s a pretty high level of poverty in Aqaba and it’s not very obvious downtown because there [are] five-star hotels, nice restaurants. But once you get in this section of the city [Mahdood] you see the real thing.
"That initial creation was to bridge low income vulnerable people, with the tourism market that can provide them with an income," he said.
The local hotels source magazines used by the artisans to make paper beads.
“The women cut strips out of it; roll them into beads with glue so it stays; varnish it; separate it by colour; and make it into a bracelet or necklace."
They also obtain their glass from Aqaba’s hotels as well as its restaurants and window shops.
“We have a partnership with them. They call us and say: 'We’ve got empty crates full of bottles.’ When people are working on windows, there’s a huge amount of waste created because they all want a specific size and the rest goes away, so we get some from there.”
In 2018, they managed to recycle 240 kg of glass for Green Creations. In addition, a glass drive in conjunction with another World Associates program (for at-risk teenagers in Aqaba) collected one tonne of material.
We do know that we’re the only ones in Aqaba doing anything related to recycling.
The collected glass is cut, smoothed out and used to make keychains, necklace pendants and ornaments.
The craft jewellery and accessories are sold at the "Souk by the Sea" market stalls at Aqaba, where tourists and locals are known to admire and appreciate them. (*Souk is the Arab equivalent of a bazaar).
Jo Whitelaw says that being employed with the program allows the artisans to contribute to their family income.
“They couldn’t just go and look for work in town,” she said. "Factors being... work experience levels, education. Those could be changed through this [program]. Some of the [other] things are like time of day, family responsibilities, flexibility. As long as they work their hours, they’re able to negotiate when and how to suit the family.”
On average, the group of 10-15 artisans produces 30-40 necklaces a day. They can roll hundreds of beads, but that’s just the first step in the process of turning them into bracelets and necklaces.
The Green Creations community has been stable for almost four years and Jo Whitelaw and Stephen Schelander intend to preserve the creative space by avoiding a mass production line of artisan jewellery.
“We’re never going to be able to compete with a one dinar (Jordanian currency) object from China... and we don’t really want to - because we’re about fair trade," they said.
The artisans' work was recognised early last year at the Aqaba Container Terminal’s (ACT) women’s day event.
“They invited us to take part in that - because all of our employees are women. But also because of the environmental impact,” Mr Schelander said.
The NGO falls under Jordan’s Ministry of Social Development, which focusses on benefitting the community and promoting the well-being of employees.
“They know what we do and [have] given us plenty of praise for that.”
*The author travelled to Jordan as part of The Foreign Correspondent Study Tour, a University of Technology Sydney (UTS) programme supported by the Council for Australian-Arab Relations (CAAR), which is part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).