The Four Biscuits owners - Raya Al-Jadir
CAIRO – 11 May 2018: The status of women varies from one society to another; however, disability poses additional challenges for women everywhere. Arab adults with disabilities, and especially women with disabilities, have less access to employment opportunities than their peers without disabilities, according to a 2014 report titled “Disability in the Arab Region: An overview” by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA). This is partly due to the wider issue of limited access to education, employment, medical facilities, social life and marriage in particular conservative societies where the status of women is relatively low, creating more challenges in their daily life.
In the last few years, things have slowly begun to change and improve within the field of disability in the region, with numerous NGOs, organizations, charities and individuals all working towards raising awareness and integrating people living with disabilities into every aspect of life.
The Four Biscuits is one of those individualized efforts that aims to empower young people with Down's syndrome by providing them with training in baking skills and then selling their products at local markets and online.
The Egyptian initiative began when a group of sisters and parents of girls with Down's syndrome used to engage in social activities together, like outings to the cinema, swimming pool and restaurants, as the families believed that their daughters have the right to have a life like anyone else. The families also wanted to make a project by them and for them, so they initially thought about opening a bakery/café where they would be the employees, aiming to integrate into society by direct interaction with the public. But, as such a project needs great financial investment, the families decided to start small with a home-based bakery business, selling the products via social media such as Facebook and Instagram.
The Four Biscuits consists of four girls living with Down's syndrome. They all attended a special needs school where they met and become friends. The girls first sold their biscuits at a local school’s bazaar. The biscuits that they sell are based on a special Swiss recipe from Irene Salem, mother of one of the girls, and it proved to be so popular with people that the girls and their families decided to begin with baking and selling these biscuits. Although The Four Biscuits began as four girls, it did not continue with four, as the parents of one of the girls opted to send her to a special needs education center.
To remain true to their name, The Four Biscuits organized an open day last February to find their “fourth biscuit”. The day consisted of fun activities, baking and a big gathering of people with Down’s syndrome, where the fourth member of the team was then chosen.
The three original girls are Sherihane Salem, 20 years old, who loves handicrafts and socializing with friends; Heidi Adel, 20 years old, who loves singing, putting on make-up and doing housework; and finally Seba Ahmed, 21 years old, who is very passionate about swimming and photography. They all got to know each other at school three years ago. The newest member of the team is Mariam; she is an Olympic champion in horse riding and has travelled to many international competitions. She also works part-time as a teacher at a local NGO. In her spare time, Mariam loves playing music, especially the piano.
The Four Biscuits officially launched in August 2017 via their Facebook page and they soon started to receive orders from the page. People loved the idea instantly and encouraged the team to carry on and expand, but this clearly requires major funding.
Nada Ahmed, the PR specialist at The Four Biscuits, explained that the project was only made possible after an application that the team submitted to Idea Camp, an idea development camp organized by the European Cultural Foundation. The team's idea was chosen among 600 other ideas that had applied for the same camp. A member of the team travelled to Spain in March 2016 to attend a four-day training. Eventually, they were chosen among 50 ideas to receive both technical and financial support from the foundation for the research and development phase of the project.
At the start of their venture, the team sold and specialized in plain biscuits made by a secret traditional Swiss recipe that they won't openly share with anyone! "It is a secret!" the group said. The most popular product is the biscuit jar, which they usually sell as plain but have recently started to make with a sugar fondant on top. Their newest product is chocolate chip cookies, launched only a few weeks ago.
There are approximately 8.5-12 million people with disabilities in Egypt, according to a 2012 report titled “People with Disabilities in Egypt: Overlooked and underestimated” by Nancy Elshami, and they are often stigmatized, hidden away by their families, and denied work opportunities. These are all factors that contribute to the image and attitude that society has of people living with disabilities, which ultimately makes it harder to progress and succeed in Arab society on the whole and not just Egypt. This view is shared by Nada Ahmed, who is also one of the girls' sisters, as she acknowledges that societies find it "hard to accept any differences of any kind and no progress can be achieved unless people learn to accept each and every citizen regardless of gender, religion, appearance, color, race or disability. People with special needs have great potential that can push any society forward. They can, if empowered, bring so much innovation and success to their nations." When asked if the girls endured any discrimination or bullying living in the Arab region, she said that it’s "more discreet and indirect discrimination, like judgmental looks, but never amounting to bullying."
According to the team, the main message that they want to convey is that "disability is an illusion. We all have certain limitations, obstacles and challenges to overcome, but that is because we are simply human; these obstacles give us the energy to struggle and to fight back reaching our dreams." They believe that disability is the creation of society, because "we all lack something, so we are all disabled in some way. A chromosome less is just like any other human vulnerability.”
As for their future, The Four Biscuits aims to expand their team and let other youth with Down’s syndrome join the initiative. On the longer term, they wish to have multiple teams all across Egypt.