• A group of Dubai women use their knitting and stitching skills to help the hungry children of the world. Oasis Living met with the founder Barbara Evans

    Ramadan is a time that inspires more charitable acts than any other month and there is plenty going around in the UAE to partake in. Rags to Riches is one such initiative focused on weaving strings of unwanted, or recyclable, fabrics to keep children warm and safe at night, and will surely inspire you to continue the good for a lifetime.

    We chatted with 70-year-old Barbara Evans who's been at the helm for the past four years in Dubai, changing the lives of children around the world one blanket at a time with her volunteers.

    WHAT LED TO RAGS TO RICHES BEING FOUNDED?

    I was a very bored housewife, wondering what I can do besides shopping all day long. That’s when I came across an article about a 99-year-old Lillian Weber who was making a dress a day every day to send them off to orphanages in countries around Africa. I couldn’t stop thinking about her at all and I said to myself, ‘This is something I can do.’

    So with only Dh200 in my purse, I set off to Satwa for its fabric stores. From there I came out with seventy dresses, but I didn’t know how to get all of them to children across the world. Then I arranged for the clothes to be shipped out to Ethiopia and that’s how it all started.

    HOW DID THIS VENTURE EXPAND?

    I was working from home until my son suggested expanding the project and looking for other people to help out. At first I was reluctant because I didn’t want to lose control over it, thankfully I didn’t at all. In fact, I received 169 volunteers – from sewers and knitters to packers and couriers. And in the four and a half years together we’ve sent out 13,000 new garments. Before that, the children have never had anything new to wear but second-hand clothes. This is why our intention is to use unwanted fabrics, instead of it going to landfills, and make new clothes out of them.

    WHAT DOES THE LATEST KNIT-A-THON PROJECT ENTAIL?

    One of my drop-off points volunteers was in South Africa when they broke the world record for the biggest knitted blanket, so she brought the idea back here and wondered if we could do it on a smaller scale, but I wasn’t happy with that and decided we’re going for the record. The UAE loves its records, so I thought let’s bring the record here. I put a shout out for whoever was interested and it just exploded – everyone wanted to be involved.

    We started on 1 April this year but we’re going to be working on this for a while, as it’s supposed to cover two football pitches. Once we’re done with the huge blanket and hit the record, it will be taken down and divided into 100cm sq smaller ones which will then be given to needy children and old people around the world.

    There are children living high up in the Himalayas in Nepal, so high that even their summer is cold, and I know a man on the ground who is quite happy to take the blankets up to them despite his only way of transportation being a six-donkey convoy. People will go to incredible measures to help these kids out.

    WHAT OTHER INITIATIVES ARE YOU WORKING ON?

    I was listening to a radio show six months ago about young ladies who have got absolutely nothing and can’t afford to buy anything to use when on their menstrual period times. It stops them from going to schools and pursuing their education.

    I thought this can’t be right, we must be able to do something for these girls and thus we came up with ‘Angel Wings’ - which are fully washable, reusable cloths and we sent out over a thousand kits so far. Our feedback has been nothing short of incredible, and we receive messages saying ‘Thank you; I can live my life again.’ What’s life-changing for these children, we take for granted.

    WHAT ELSE HAVE YOU KNITTED?

    We have ladies making dresses, shorts, blouses, shirts, headbands, jewellery, soft toys, and even tote bags. As plastic bags have become a global problem, especially in India at the moment where people have nothing to carry their school books and groceries in, so we make tote bags out of curtains and really whatever old fabrics come through we make the most out of.

    CAN PEOPLE DONATE THEIR OLD CLOTHES FOR YOU TO REPURPOSE?

    We don’t accept second-hand clothes. We could undo and redo them to look new but in that time I could’ve made five new items out of the fabrics. We can however accept second-hand bedding, leftover linen and fabrics from shops – especially tailors who have so much wastage at their shops.

    DO YOU OFFER ANY BEGINNER WORKSHOPS FOR NON-KNITTERS WHO WOULD LIKE TO VOLUNTEER?

    We are spreading our team into two different areas of Dubai, and we have set a coordinator to organise a Knit-A-Thon meet-up between the two teams so people who don’t know how to knit can go along there and we’ll show them how. We also encourage them to knit during their free time like while watching television in the evening for instance. Otherwise there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube; my daughter learnt that way as well as about 50 other ladies too.

    HOW DO YOU COORDINATE WITH THE COMMUNITIES YOU’RE SENDING THE ITEMS TO?

    It’s actually a lot of the ladies travelling back to their home countries from Dubai for the holidays, and we also work with charities. 


    IS IT ONLY WOMEN WHO VOLUNTEER OR CAN MEN VOLUNTEER TOO?

    Of course they can, we’ve got men packaging and couriering the items for us.

    WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE THE FUTURE OF THIS INITIATIVE TO BE LIKE?

    My dream is to have a Rags to Riches in every country. We’ve already started with a pod in the UK, the US, and a recent one in Australia – so it’s growing.

    WHAT PLACES HAVE YOU SENT THE ITEMS TO SO FAR?

    We’ve done 24 countries so far: South Africa, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt, lots of Syrian and Kurdish refugee camps, Thailand, Indonesia, and New Guinea – just to name a few popular ones.

    DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING PLANNED FOR RAMADAN?

    Like every year since the beginning, we help an orphanage in South Africa by providing the children with their Eid clothes.