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October 21 2021 2:08 PM ˚

Workshop gives those with minor offenses another shot at employment

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(Photo: Handout Tala Mansour)
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AMMAN — A handcrafting workshop has allowed ex-prisoners to reintegrate into society and find employment without having a clean criminal record.
The idea came to Lawyer Tala Mansour to create a project in 2010 during a court case where she witnessed a case against a young man regarding a debt that he couldn't repay.اضافة اعلان

Because he was unable to come up with the funds, he was sued and jailed.
According to Human Rights Watch, "Failure to repay even small debts carries a penalty of up to 90 days in prison per debt, and up to one year for a bounced check."

After pleading his case and having him discharged he was unable to find work because his criminal record prevented him from securing a job.
"He pleaded with us at the lawyer's firm and he was in a difficult situation because the man wanted to work and find employment and he was not a convict, or a thief, or a conman," said Mansour in an interview with Jordan News.

"Life is hard, and so because of the lack of availability of opportunities to him because of his situation, he didn't know what else to do. And he didn't want to go back and take loans, and borrow from people. He was looking for a way to provide for his family."

Mansour looked inward and asked her father to employ the man in one of his factories. She comes from an industrial family, both her father and grandfather's involvement in the industrial business dates back to 1948 in Jordan.

After much initial hesitation at hiring an ex-prisoner, they eventually employed the man and discovered, "He was extremely reliable, and absolutely harmless. He was very good and talented, and a polite young man. He had it all," said Mansour.

Mansour soon found herself in front of another similar case, where a young man was incarcerated for non-repayment of debt.

"We made sure that the reason for his incarceration was the same as the first man, that this was not a serious or threatening offense, and we found that he was experiencing the same issues with unemployment upon his release. He could not find a job that would employ him because of his background," she disclosed.

She pondered over what she could do to help. As a lawyer, she argues in their favor to have them released, but with a marked criminal record, the men are left in the same monetary situation as before, if not, worse.

With the system working against them, and a stain on their record, Mansour believed that they would fall into the same misfortunes. The idea came to her to create a workshop with the sole objective to support ex-prisoners and allow them an opportunity, without the shame and burden of their community looking down on them. She wanted them to confidently re-integrate.

"My purpose for this entire workshop was to promote a better understanding of the ex-prisoners and the importance of their integration into the community."
The initial three workers soon became 13. "Some workers start with us till they get a clear permanent record, and a lot of them have gone back to university, some have gone on to government jobs. Thank God," said Mansour.

Scouring the market to find gaps, she wanted a commodity that would constantly be in demand so that the workers would constantly have a steady workflow. She worried that a temporary project would not be enough, and if it ended prematurely, the employees would have to start looking for other work finding themselves in yet another difficult situation.

"We found that the most reliable production would be that of home accessories. But the thing that would distinguish our production would be that all of the home accessories created would be hand-made at a capacity where we can employ a maximum number of workers to generate opportunities for them, that otherwise they would not find."

She continued that Artisan home decor was specifically lacking, and because of her industrial background, she knew how readily available raw materials were in Jordan. They utilized different metals such as copper, aluminum, stainless steel and subsequently adding plexiglass.

An additional objective of her project was to support the local community as well as supporting local Jordanian products and industries.

"To me, our company and workshop supported something that matters. Something that is important. Firstly, our local community, to create opportunities for jobs that use hand-made work because this is a sector that has such a low job opportunity. Second, our support for Jordanian products, locally sourced products and their constant progression and we were able to reach a point where we began exporting," said Mansour.

The workshop now has exported to the regional Gulf countries and has branched out to European countries. She was also able to collaborate with outside workshops in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Saudia Arabia, and the United Kingdom.

Mansour looks at the last 12 years and examines how much the Middle East has changed specifically after the Syrian uprising in 2011.
The eventual war saw the migration of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Jordan. Mansour decided to extend the support and mission of the workshop to Syrian refugees.

"We saw that there was a great majority of Syrian refugees that were very talented in hand-crafts and hand-trades, so we also extended this workshop to help the refugees and employ many of them,” said Mansour.

She regards her workshop as a success. Mansour set out to create an opportunity for one which snowballed into an opportunity for many. She was able to give them a job and more importantly a skill that she believes will allow them to hone, and pass down for their posterity.

She notes the significance of choosing not to fund the workshop through outside support. Instead, she and a few women personally funded the project in a sense, practicing what she was preaching.

“Many of the young men who worked with us, went on to create their workshops, and thank God, this was our objective from the start.”
"We saw our objective work and that to me is success. We succeeded at what we set out to create. These young men gained a skill, and they were able to earn an income even after being rejected by society, looked down upon by places of employment, companies, and banks. They were not given a chance," she said.

Mansour explains that it takes a considerable amount of time to clear a marked criminal record, sometimes taking even years, which is the reason for the lack of opportunities afforded to them.

She now finds her pieces, "in every house, every foundation, we find pieces in the malls, we even find pieces in sweet shops. So in conclusion, to me this is a story of success not for me personally, but for the workers, and the understanding that not everyone who goes to prison, is a criminal. This is an example to not judge someone based on their circumstances. This is a reason to hope," said Mansour.

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