Like many Canadians trying to keep safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sarah Abood was hoping to buy some protective face masks.
And like many of her countrymates, she went home empty-handed.
The 24-year-old co-founder of the Ottawa-based startup Thawrih — which employs Syrian newcomers to produce sports hijabs and turbans for customers in more than 32 countries — had been looking for a mask to wear on her flight in late February to a pitch competition in Silicon Valley, an early hotspot for the novel coronavirus south of the border.
Upon her return to Ottawa, Abood went into self-quarantine for two weeks and realized she could’ve been exposed to the virus, which is spreading around the world like wildfire.
“It was more surreal at that point, I really wanted access to (protective face masks), and I know that there were millions of other people who felt the same way,” Abood recalled.
“They’re not in dire need, like no underlying health issues … but you want your protection.”
That’s when the ambitious entrepreneur — along with her business partner, 23-year-old Sami Dabliz — got to work.
Thawrih, which means revolutionary in Arabic, has started to make its own washable and reusable protective face masks by giving a second life to the scrap material from their other products. Its SportsMasks are priced at $20 for a package of two or three, depending on the style, so Abood and Dabliz can cover the cost of their products and pay their employees, who earn on average between $25 to $30 an hour.
“The whole point of this was not to make a profit — it’s to do our part in the community,” said Abood, noting that they sold out of their supply in 48 hours with very little promotion.
“We have lots of people — even (some in the) medical field — so we talked about this as a non-medical product — it’s mostly for the public. (But) we have nurses pleading to us that ‘they’re better than nothing.’ They really want it.”
Experts are of mixed opinions on the value of face masks among the general public. The head of China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said recently it is a big mistake that there is a lack of widespread mask usage in the U.S. and Europe because it could prevent the spread of COVID-19 from asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people.
The CDC in the U.S. is also said to be considering altering its guidelines to encourage people to cover their faces, but not with the N95 masks that are in desperately short supply for health workers and are designed to filter out particles that carry the virus.
However, non-N95 masks aren’t perfect and bring up other issues like the fact that they can actually cause people to touch their face more as they make adjustments, or take them off to eat, and give them a false sense of security, which Health Canada warns against.
Abood acknowledged the contradictory points of view, but emphasized that they did their research and used a University of Cambridge study on the efficacy of homemade masks as a guideline.
The paper — which found that cloth masks can filter out at least 50 per cent and even up to 75 per cent of particles 0.2 microns and larger, the size of the coronavirus — helped them identify quick-drying and antimicrobial materials from their athletic hijabs and turbans. They also added a second layer of fabric in hopes of upping the protection.
“We personally do think that they are effective. Again, they’re better than wearing nothing,” said Abood.
The production of protective face masks also solved another problem for Thawrih. With gyms closed, the demand for their athletic attire had fallen and they needed to find work for their employees.
It was their employees after all, the Syrian newcomers to Canada, who were one of the driving forces behind the creation of the company nearly two years ago.
Abood had previously started a non-profit for Syrian refugees with a few friends from the University of Ottawa and, in hearing their stories, became acutely aware of the barriers they faced in finding employment despite their talents and experience.
“We had newcomers that came in quite frequently and you get to know them and … just hearing their stories and what they left behind and how they’re pretty talented in terms of their work and being a seamstress, but they couldn’t find any work here.
“So it just made sense for me to kind of combine both ideas and create this company that also employs people who are disadvantaged in terms of their employment.”
It was an issue that resonated with Abood — who was born in Canada but whose parents came to the country from Iraq as refugees — and Dabliz, whose family is from Lebanon and grew up in Saudi Arabia.
“We both kind of had that background and really understood what it’s like to make that move over to a new country and not really have much or have much employment,” said Abood.
And it’s the same desire to look beyond their own needs and support others that is driving their latest endeavour.
“We’re not looking to sell or create a lucrative event out of what’s happening in the world — we’re just looking to kind of do our part and help out in any which way we can. And this was a way that we could help,” said Abood.