Portrait of a Nation: Dubai resident helps refugees stitch their lives back together

For Theresa Tsui, sewing helped her achieve purpose in her life and now she is helping others do the same

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 29, 2018. 

Theresa Tsui, Co-Founder, Skills3.com, in her home.

Skills3 is a women-led creative skills transfer social enterprise, based in Dubai, UAE. They design and deliver tailor made sewing and craft based programmes on behalf of sponsors, for humanitarian relief, therapy, goodwill or as a unique activity/experience, to women in displaced, disadvantaged or marginalised communities in the MENA region.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter: ANAM RIZVI
Section:  NA POAN
The biog

Favourite book: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Favourite holiday destination: Spain

Favourite film: Bohemian Rhapsody

Favourite place to visit in the UAE: The beach or Satwa

Children: Stepdaughter Tyler 27, daughter Quito 22 and son Dali 19

Once a fashion designer in London, Theresa Tsui had no idea that she would one day end up travelling around the Middle East, helping marginalised women find a sense of purpose through sewing.

When Ms Tsui moved to Dubai 13 years ago, it took her a long time to feel settled. But a chance discovery of Arte, The Makers Market — a market place for artisans at the Times Square Centre Dubai — set her down a road that has seen her use her passions to help others find theirs.

"I signed to get a table and started sewing clothes and stuff — bags or whatever took my fancy. It grew from there and I started informal classes,” said Ms Tsui, 47, from the UK.

"Joining Arte gave me purpose and offered a community. I realised other women like me wanted to feel they had more of a purpose."

Four years ago, Ms Tsui hosted a sewing class at a labour camp as part of women’s wellness day and it was another turning point for her.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 29, 2018. 

Theresa Tsui, Co-Founder, Skills3.com, in her home.

Skills3 is a women-led creative skills transfer social enterprise, based in Dubai, UAE. They design and deliver tailor made sewing and craft based programmes on behalf of sponsors, for humanitarian relief, therapy, goodwill or as a unique activity/experience, to women in displaced, disadvantaged or marginalised communities in the MENA region.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter: ANAM RIZVI
Section:  NA POAN

Since then, she has worked with widowed refugees in Turkey and Kurdistan, teaching them how to make dresses, clothes and decorations.

In 2016, Ms Tsui travelled to Gaziantep in the predominantly Kurdish south-east of Turkey as part of a group called Rags to Riches, who teach women refugees the art of sewing.

Initially, she said the women at the camp were reserved and nervous, but as the day went on they began enjoying the work and the camaraderie.

"We are not there to tell them what to do and how to do it. We want to show the possibilities of what crafts can do for them and the possibilities open to them.

"Creativity gives them a purpose, restores well-being, dignity and lowers stress," she said.

The women get to repurpose clothes donations that may not be fit to be used otherwise.

"In London, I worked with refugees but that was restricted to ladling out soup. The refugees kept saying 'we just don’t want handouts. We want to do something’.

“In refugee camps, women are the last section to get help. Children go to school, men go out and work, but women, many of whom are widows, are neglected,” said the creative entrepreneur.

Ms Tsui works with marginalised communities in UAE, too.

At present, she is working with marginalised or displaced women from the Filipino community, some of whom have lost their jobs.

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"Most of the women we work with have not received education after the age of 11, and we are working to improve their skills. We are there to offer skills training and therapy for free.

She also helps companies develop their corporate social responsibility initiatives.

Born and brought up in the UK, Ms Tsui is the daughter of parents from Hong Kong and Singapore. She grew up watching her grandmother and mother sew.

"I have always sewed — I made bags, costumes, zip pouches, dresses.

"I would watch my grandmother and want to make clothes for my doll. She showed me how to make a basic dress by hand.

“It has been a lifelong passion,” she said.

She is hoping to work in Palestine next year where “many women are in a very challenging environment".

And in the future, she is hoping to integrate Emirati handicrafts such as tali and sadu into her crafts, honouring local traditions.

The biog

Favourite book: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Favourite holiday destination: Spain

Favourite film: Bohemian Rhapsody

Favourite place to visit in the UAE: The beach or Satwa

Children: Stepdaughter Tyler 27, daughter Quito 22 and son Dali 19