In Lina Al Sharif’s dining room, there’s a form of group therapy going on. As her little boy runs around the table in her sunny house, a dozen women’s hands are busily hooking crochet teddy bears and stringing bracelets; the soundtrack is conversation about the one thing that unites them: Breast cancer.
Many of the women in the room are either going through treatment for breast cancer, or have completed it; others, touched by the devastation the disease has brought to their friends, families or communities, have volunteered their time and skills. Meet the Pink Ribbon Crafters.
After discovering that many women across the emirates were use their crafting skills to make objects that are sold to raise funds to pay for cancer treatment for those who cannot afford it – for example, one session of chemotherapy can cost Dh35,000, Lina, and her friend and fellow cancer patient Elaine Callander, found a way to unite them – creating both an effective fundraising network for the Al Jalila Foundation and a band of breast cancer fighters.
Elaine, who now lives in Singapore, was selling candles to raise funds, but once she left, needed someone to continue the work. Lina had picked up her crochet hook while she was doing chemotherapy. ‘I thought, if I make things for fellow breast cancer patients, it will not really help. What will help is the money. I thought, let me try to sell them,’ continues Lina. A Facebook page she set up sold so much, it’s now an all-year initiative. ‘I helped Elaine in her candle initiative – she was doing it all online, I was doing things on the ground. Last year we made Dh91,000.’
‘We found out [the women in the group] are all doing initiatives, but separately, so why not do it all together? That’s how we all started. We are all donating to the same place. That’s how we created Pink Ribbon Crafters this year.’
The patients and volunteers make and sell a range of items that are sold at public events during the month of October, as well as making items for corporate schemes; the funds are used by Al Jalila to help pay the medical bills of women whose insurance can’t cover the cost of their treatment. They aim to raise Dh100,000 this year.
Giving back is the main incentive: One Crafter, Hana Abu Lughog, was a beneficiary of Al Jalili funds when she lost her job whilst on chemo. ‘That’s why I’m helping, because I had their help. It’s not about if you are rich or not – [treatment is] very expensive.’
Mention the cost of treatment, and a momentarily quiet crafting table bursts into conversation again: It’s a common topic, and everyone knows someone that had to struggle. But it’s not only about donating money, says Lina.
‘I’m sure we can all donate this money directly from our salary, but it’s not about that. It’s the fact that for example when Paula was on chemo, she was doing her crochet. The fact that we get disconnected and do something that brings happiness for someone else is a whole reward for me personally and I am sure a lot of the women would agree.’
‘It’s personal as well,’ says, of selling the items at fairs, markets and schools. ‘People can see you’re going through it. Last year I had no hair and I was selling.’ Next to her, Alison Munro, who completed her chemotherapy earlier this summer, nods. ‘During chemo, I picked up my hook again.’ Crafting itself brings a benefit to the group.
‘Chemo would take four to five hours and I would get so bored,’ says Lina. ‘I would do everything, watch TV, call people, but I still wanted something to keep my mind disconnected. So I picked [crochet] up again and I started making things. And I know how expensive chemo was. So I was trying to find a project where I could help others from my knitting and I pass the time at the same time.’
At the other end of the table, Sharon Larkworthy chimes in, looking up from the occasional waterfalls of beads trickling off the table with a smile. ‘It’s therapeutic. It’s group therapy.’
A side effect of chemo is numbness in the fingers and toes, says Paula McClancy. ‘I find this actually helps to keep some feeling. You can’t pick things up, you can’t do certain things, and that’s a horrible feeling. I’m so used to being able to do things. This helps.’
The impact of a group of people knitting, making candles and bracelets can be huge, and goes far beyond the people sitting around that table. ‘You ask any of us,’ says Lina. ‘We feel more satisfied in doing this than anything else in life. It brings so much happiness. People think that we’re giving people [something], but we are getting [something] – the feeling that you are doing something with your own hands and helping someone in need and creating a community.’
Find the Pink Ribbon Crafters at breast cancer awareness events around the UAE this month, including Ripe Market at Zabeel Park today and at Barsha Park tomorrow; Dubai Ladies Club today and tomorrow; and the Pinktivity fitness day at Watercooled Beachfront, Dubai International Marine Club today. Visit their Facebook page for more events and to connect.