27 Mar 2019 Story Cities and lifestyles

Waragami—a story of two friends with a passion for art and creating social change

In 2016, both Laith Abu-Taleb and Aisha Salman were students in the Balqaa Applied University in Jordan. They were two friends with a common passion for art and creating positive social change in their country. Whenever they had free time, they would get together and practice a hobby which they shared in paper art origami and quilling—the French art of rolling strips of paper to create different designs and shapes. Their passion for art inspired their friends and other students in their university, and also caught the attention of organizations in Jordan.

One afternoon, they received a phone call from a national institution which asked them to implement a training workshop for students to teach them the art of origami. Undoubtedly, Salman and Abu-Taleb were very excited about the opportunity, however they were worried because they lacked the professional tools and materials needed for teaching paper art. For their hobby, they were ordering small scale tools from international websites, which costed a lot of money and took a very long time to ship.

After receiving that call, the young innovators decided that their hobby must be developed into something bigger. They had to be the first in the Middle East to produce the tools and materials locally in Jordan, and design a bilingual step-by-step guidebook for paper art. They started brainstorming the idea and came up with the name Waragami for their project, which was inspired by the Arabic word (waraq) and the Japanese word (gami) for paper.

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West Asia

Feelings of excitement could not be contained. However, their families and friends advised them against establishing Waragami, considering their young age, lack of skills for developing a business and considerations for financial responsibilities. Salman and Abu-Taleb faced a lot of discouragement. They were challenged by comments such as “It’s just a piece of paper, how will you turn it into social change?”, “You are too young to establish a project that can create social change.”, etc. The comments did put them down, however their passion was stronger and unstoppable. They were determined!

Step by step, they started developing their art kits at home, using raw material at low cost which they bought with their savings. They refused to order material from abroad because they were determined to show the world the beautiful products that could come out of their country. They studied the market, started attending training programmes to strengthen their knowledge in marketing, finance, designing, creative thinking and how to deal with investors. They also applied for one of the business accelerators in Jordan—Oasis500—who believed in the concept and invested in Waragami. They also offered Salman and Abu-Taleb a physical location to operate from. Their family and friends started supporting the idea.

Little by little, they began developing products that were full of joy and passion. They launched 17 packaging ideas but made package number 17 a special one. It was the core of their project and represented the social changes that they wanted to see in the world. The colours they selected for the package did not include blue or pink because they wanted to communicate gender neutrality and equality. They made the size of the kit smaller to fit a school bag, to cater to school age children and offer quality education.

Package 17 embodies art for all, quality education, gender equality and reduced inequalities. They had a dream and they were determined to fulfil it! Through Waragami, they started supporting the Sustainable Development Goals: they integrated persons with disabilities in their project to reduce inequalities, and used recycled paper and material that is 75 per cent free of plastic to protect the environment.

Salman and Abu-Taleb began noticing things that they could change within their community through their project. They understood that public schools in Jordan did not provide art classes to children due to their overstretched budgets. They also noticed the large amounts of paper being wasted in schools from printing, used notebooks, and books. To address these problems, they launched the Waragami Recycling Corner which aimed to upcycle paper in schools... and found out that one old book can be turned into more than 300 origami papers ! The Waragami Recycling Corner meant that children in public schools were able to attend free art classes while making use of paper already available in the schools.

They took Waragami Recycling Corner to five public schools, a public university, and a private company, focusing on public schools which are normally marginalized outside of the capital’s centre. They also implemented awareness sessions on upscaling paper to 1,500 students across the Kingdom and outside of Jordan in the United States, Malta, Spain and Kosovo. They visited public schools in the different governorates of Jordan, to give people outside of Amman an opportunity to learn more about the paper art and contribute to the protection of the environment.

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Salman and Abu-Taleb say that the joy Waragami has brought to these children is worth the challenging moments that they faced when establishing their project. They are proud of their achievements in bringing happiness to the children, developing their skills, teaching them how to upcycle and making them feel more responsible towards their environment and the planet.

They now plan to partner with the private and public sectors and individuals to expand their project in Jordan and abroad. They also plan to have the Waragami Recycling Corner in more schools across the Kingdom. Now that their brand is trademarked and registered with the National Library of Jordan, it has also been approved to be sold abroad and on international websites such as Amazon. The future is bright for the two young innovators, who aim to #SolveDifferent and create sustainable impact in their country and across the world.