Alumni entrepreneurs create sustainable facemasks to fight the spread of COVID-19

Posted on Friday, April 3, 2020

Thawrih founders Sarah Abood (left) and Sami Dabliz (right) sporting their new protective facemasks.

Thawrih founders and uOttawa alumni Sarah Abood (left) and Sami Dabliz (right) sporting their new COVID-19 protective facemasks.

Ottawa-based activewear company Thawrih, best known for producing fitness headgear for Muslim and Sikh athletes, is using leftover materials to create facemasks that help protect against the spread of COVID-19.

At the end of February 2020, Thawrih founders Sarah Abood and Sami Dabliz travelled to Silicon Valley to participate in the SoGal global pitching competition to promote their company.

At the time, Canada had just confirmed its first COVID-19 case related to travel outside of mainland China. The virus was not yet considered a pandemic and ‘social distancing’ was not yet part of Canadians’ everyday vernacular.

Before leaving, Abood says she wanted to buy a facemask to wear on the plane, but she couldn’t find one—anywhere.

Upon their return from the US, Adood and Dabliz learned that the San Francisco Bay Area was a hotbed for COVID-19 infections, and they decided to go into self-isolation for two weeks, just to be safe.

“One of the hardest things about self-isolating was not being able to go to the gym,” says Abood, laughing. “Sami and I were personal trainers a while back, before launching Thawrih, and we normally work out three hours a day. So, going to the gym is big for us. At the end of our two weeks, we were ready to start up again—and that’s when everything shut down.”

Life threw them a curve ball, so they adapted their business

During their down time, Abood called one of her employees to see if she could create a few protective masks out of the leftover textiles from their fitness hijabs and turbans.

At first, the masks were meant for personal use and for family and friends. But after a couple of trips to the grocery story, where shoppers were eager to find out where she had gotten her mask, she quickly realized that there was a much larger and immediate need for protective facemasks.

That’s when things clicked into place. Abood and Dabliz wanted to find a way to ensure their twelve employees—all of them newcomers to Canada—had enough income to weather the storm despite dwindling sales. Producing facemasks out of leftover material was the perfect way to give back to the community and keep their employees working.

“Our employees were already working from home when they were producing sports clothing,” says Abood. “So, this was actually a seamless transition for us—no pun intended.”

Social responsibility at the heart of it all

The Thawrih SportsMask is for healthy people who are looking for an extra level of protection while social distancing. It is made from a double layer of organic, quick-dry materials. The mask is breathable, washable and is available in a variety of colours.

“This product is really meant for the general public,” says Abood. “The whole point is to keep medical-grade masks available to the medical workers that need them. For the general public, what they need is a barrier that protects them from breathing in secretions and particles.”

They are also working on a new facemask design that ties around the head, rather than looping around the ears, to accommodate people who wear hijabs or turbans.

Thawrih has already sold over 800 units to the Ottawa public, but the initiative has nothing to do with profits. Abood says it is part of their company’s initiative to help where they can. The cost of the masks covers shipping, the product and the employee wages.

“It’s scary to be part of this pandemic,” says Abood. “We really wanted to do something that would have an impact on the community. We have the ability to do this for the public, to help the economy by keeping our business up and running, and for our employees who don’t really have any other options when it comes to employment.”

A power couple committed to empowering others

Thawrih founders Sarah Abood and Sami Dabliz met while studying at the University of Ottawa. Abood was studying economics and graduated from the Faculty of Social Sciences in 2018, and Dabliz is currently completing an Honours BSc in Human Kinetics with the Faculty of Health Science.

More specifically, and unsurprisingly, the couple met while working out at uOttawa’s Minto Sports Complex Fitness Centre in mid-2016. They launched their activewear company in early 2017 and are now engaged to be married.

The couple launched Thawrih because they wanted to promote “unity through fitness.” As physical trainers, they often heard from clients that they were having trouble finding headgear that was suitable for working out. In some cases, it even prevented them from going to the gym.

Producing a line of fitness hijabs and turbans was a way for Abood and Dabliz to bring cultures together and empower people to get into physical activity.

“When we were starting our company, there was a lot going on in the world in terms of women’s rights and the Arab Spring,” says Abood. “We were looking for a company name that would be meaningful, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean something to the general public—something that would be its own word.”

Thawrih means “my revolution” in Arabic.

“It’s about people having their own revolution, finding out who they are and building confidence while working out. It’s about owning your skin, which is our company slogan. It’s meant to empower different cultures across the world and encourage them to get into physical activity,” she says.

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