The hijabs and turbans retail for $29. Courtesy, Diana Kolesarova.

Refugees sew gear for religious athletes

By Haneen Al-Hassoun

An Ottawa-based personal trainer is providing her clients with culturally and religiously appropriate active wear, while giving Syrian refugee women job opportunities through her company, Thawrih.

The company’s name is an Arabic word that translates to “revolutionary,” according to founder and University of Ottawa student, Sarah Abood. She said the company provides individuals with athletic garments that adhere to religious obligations while being comfortable.

Abood said the name was chosen because she believed the business itself is revolutionary.

“We want to make revolutionary impact in the world because we’re not only catering to one specific religion, we’re kind of bringing unity through all these different ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds through fitness,” she said.

Abood said the idea came from volunteering with Capital Welcome, a local organization that helps refugees resettle, and tearing a ligament in her knee while playing competitive soccer. She said her injury put her out of the game and led her to become a personal trainer instead.

Abood said she and co-founder Sami Adabliz were receiving many requests to receive “home workouts” because their clients felt uncomfortable going to the gym due to lack of modest clothing.

“As I knew that a lot of the Syrian newcomers had really great seamstress skills, I thought, ‘Why don’t we kind of help two problems and make this product that will help a lot of people but also help the employment rate for the Syrian newcomers?’”

Abood said the turbans and hijabs, which cost $29, are being made in the newcomer women’s homes at their own pace, and are paid per item produced. She said being able to work from home is “a huge bonus” for them as they carry the responsibility of looking after their families.

Every purchase from Thawrih “empowers women by providing experience and confidence,” according to its website.

But experience and opportunity seem futile as religious garments have created controversy in sports in past years. In 2012, nine-year-old Bayane Benatti was banned from playing in a weekend soccer tournament in Quebec, because her hijab was a “safety hazard.”

Similarly, in 2014, the Quebec Soccer Federation banned Sikh kids from wearing turbans during games for similar reasons.

Yasmin Atassi, a young Muslim woman in Ottawa, said since she started wearing the hijab a year ago, it has become more difficult for her to find suitable athletic gear.

“You’re trying to find fabric that is light and at the same time modest, so this combination of these two things are hard to find.”

Atassi said while companies like Nike are making the effort to cater to a growing demand by Muslim female athletes, releasing one collection is not enough.

The hijab is a headscarf Muslim women wear while the turban is worn both by Sikh men and women as a religious observance. Courtesy, Zein Ahmed.

Ingie Elsaka, who modelled for Abood’s company when it launched in October, said working out in traditional hijab fabric is inconvenient because it absorbs sweat and doesn’t dry easily.

She said the company’s garments on the contrary are breathable and light.

Elsaka said she also “loved the cause behind (the business).”

“She’s providing a line that pretty much connects everyone together with the thing they love, by owning their skin.”

Abood said starting the company itself was not hard, but getting support from the community was a challenge.

“When you start something, it is risky … especially when you’re young and you’re still doing school,” she said.

Abood said the company’s website is beginning to attract attention and the business is averaging 1-2 sales per day. She said her vision is to expand the company and employ more newcomers.

“In the long run, my co-founder and I, we want to build an empire.”