Stepping out of Beirut airport you are immediately hit by the smell of rotting rubbish. It is a heady reminder of the rubbish crisis which hit Beirut a few months ago. With landfill sites overspilling, rubbish lined the streets of Beirut, piling up in forests and river beds surrounding the capital.
In the face of this crisis, one creative pair saw an opportunity.
Ramia and Wissam fled the conflict in Syria a couple of years ago. Since then they have been busy creating products from what materials they can find around them. In recent months their attention has turned to glass.
Each year, over 70 million glass bottles are imported to Lebanon, with the vast majority of these ending up in landfill sites. Ramia and Wissam began collecting glass bottles and turning them into useful objects from jars, to ash trays and salt and pepper containers. They’ve started to see some success selling the products to restaurants in Beirut, a large local water company, and recently a boutique in Germany. However, to really make a difference, they need to scale their project.
In optimistic moments, its something they believe is possible. Our solution does not require skill, Wissam explains, it is simple, cheap and can employ refugees who have no prior knowledge of making things. Ramia and Wissam had no prior experience working with glass before this project. What little they could learn they found on youtube videos, and the rest they made up themselves. After many tweaks and improvisations they eventually created a small machine which simultaneously scores the glass and exposes it to flame. When dipped in water the glass separates into two pieces with a satisfying pop.
Since leaving Syria four years ago, they’ve had to draw on all their natural resourcefulness. In Damascus they used to run a company making architectural features out of marble. Its a business that requires a lot of space and equipment, something they do not have access to in Lebanon, so they work with the materials they have in front of them. A few months ago they found an abandoned building close to their apartment, and they moved in, cleaned it up and turned it into a fully functioning workshop geared towards upcycling.
Resourcefulness seems to be a typical Syrian trait. Before the war, Wissam tells us, Syria was a major industrial player in the region. Surrounded by countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, who did not produce themselves, Syria developed its own industries - large numbers of small factories, low in technology but high in efficiency. One day Ramia & Wissam talk about opening their own small factory, bringing under one roof Syrian makers from many different sectors.
When we ask more details about their plan for the years ahead, they laugh. Their situation in Lebanon is as precarious as many of the other 1.8 million Syrian refugees here. To run their own business they need to find a Lebanese partner who owns more than 51% of the business, something which is taking a long time to do. Forget the three year plan, Wissam says, a next day plan is enough here.