Meet the Maker: Begin Again Group

By Andrea Gunn

A bag from Begin Again Group is elegant in its simplicity. Each sleek, black bag boasts subtle details: tiny silver rivets, a delicately braided handle, elegant hardware.  Each bag also incorporates a small snowflake in its design, a symbol of its unique nature, and a connection with its maker.

Begin Again Group is a social enterprise that creates unique, stylish bags out of recycled rubber. But it’s more than that.  It is also a small community of women, most of whom are new Canadians. Through the group, they have learned design, construction, marketing, and business skills, all while building their new lives in Kingston.

Designer Carolyn Butts has been working with recycled materials for several years at her studio Bon Eco Design in Tamworth. Her work, she says, “is rooted in appreciation of nature and honouring the material, the human resources, and the natural resources that go into making these commodities that we consume, and often discard.”  By recycling materials in her design work, she says, “I’m respecting the materials, I’m respecting the people that made them, and I’m respecting nature.”

Members of the Begin Again Group putting together bags.

Carolyn started Begin Again Group in 2017 as a project with KEYS Employment Centre through its mentorship program for refugee women. The collaboration grew, becoming a profit-sharing social enterprise. It was incorporated last year.

The material used in the bags is rubber. So not only are the bags made from recycled material, they are also waterproof, easy to clean, and vegan. But that rubber is also from tractor tire inner tubes, adding another layer to the story of new beginnings. “Those tires once helped plough fields, and grow food,” says Carolyn. The material is imbued with identity, just as the purse is then imbued with the identity of the woman who manufactured it.

Each bag incorporates a snowflake pattern unique to its creator. “I wanted to celebrate each person, their uniqueness and style,” says Carolyn. On the Begin Again Group website, you can read about each of the creators. As well as Carolyn, there’s Eman, Farah, and Mariam, all originally from Syria; there’s Sitelbanat, from Sudan; there’s Fatima, from Morocco; and there’s Sanaa, who came to Kingston originally from Iraq and then Syria.

Sanaa Zaki is no stranger to starting over.  In Iraq, she once had a career in public relations for a government ministry. But she and her family had to flee their country, leaving everything behind, their home, all their possessions. “I left with my family because of the miserable conditions there,” she says.” They found their way to Syria, where they lived for eight years.  Then, in 2015, Sanaa and her family were able to come to Canada. In Kingston, she started studying English language classes, began volunteering at a retirement home, and also found her way to KEYS, where she became involved in the Begin Again Group.

“My work in my country was very different from this,” Sanaa says. “We all had to learn how to fabricate and to design the purses. But we all also brought something of our culture to the project.  And with this project, I have learned to communicate with other people in English. I have developed my language skills.”  She also credits her son and daughter for encouraging her not to give up.  “And after a few months, we were able to produce handbags. Each of these purses carry the unique story of each of us, as well as the material we use.”

The communal aspect of their work has always been a big part of the enterprise. Friday afternoons were always when the group gathered, most recently at Cooke’s-Portsmouth United Church in Kingston. However, they haven’t been able to work together since March.

But you can still purchase the bags they each made before the pandemic started. On their website, you can explore their work and their stories, and become a part of new beginnings.