Upcycling jeans entrepreneur proving single mums are not scroungers

Siti Noor Syuhaidah Saleh cutting denim material as her 2-year-old daughter looks on.

KLANG: Losing your life partner is a devastating event for anyone.

It is especially heartbreaking for a young wife looking forward to years of family life, happily raising children with her husband.

When Siti Noor Syuhaidah Saleh’s husband died suddenly, leaving her with three young daughters and another on the way, she thought it was the end of the world.

She was left virtually penniless, raising her children alone and with no job. She felt overwhelmed and depressed.

Siti’ Noor Syuhaidah’s two-year-old daughter often waits for her mother while she works at the Suri workshop.

It wasn’t easy for her children either. Her two eldest daughters Rabiatul Adawiyah, 10 at the time and Rizsaidatul Naida, 7, were made fun of at school. They often came home crying, and then played truant, causing their grades to suffer.

“When the school held events for parents, I went alone. Other kids teased them, asking where their father was.”

She received her husband’s Socso pension, but the RM1,000 was not enough to buy more than the absolute necessities for her daughters.

She desperately needed another source of income if she was ever to be able to afford an occasional treat for her kids.

The future looked bleak. She had no work experience and no training, so no likelihood of finding work that would pay what she needed to keep her head above water.

Then a friend told her about Suri, a new social enterprise in Klang which manufactured bags out of old jeans. Everything was made by single mothers trained onsite.

Suri proved to be the lifeline that Siti was searching for. She has now been a ”beneficiary” working there since November 2016.

Suri was founded by Salena Ahmad, known as Sally, and a single mother of two herself.

Sally Ahmad, founder of Suri, believes single mothers should be given a better support system.

Sally told FMT that like most single mothers, she suffered the usual problems.

“When my marriage fell apart, I was desperate for a way to get back on my feet,” she said.

“I was luckier than most because I had run my own business before. That business didn’t last but at least I had gained some experience.”

Two years after her divorce, Sally attended a workshop on upcycling old jeans by crafting them into new and useful products. This gave her the glimmer of an idea.

She had met other single mothers in her community in Sungai Udang, Klang. There were many more than she expected and most of them were faring worse than her, unable to find work or only very low paid work.

“Most of them lacked any kind of work experience and ended up relying on assistance such as zakat,” she said.

“Being housewives and mothers, they had never had a paying job. The first thing any potential employer asks is what kind of experience you have.”

She remembered the denim recycling workshop and had a brainwave.

A handbag sewn by one of the mothers working at Suri. The social enterprise also trains single mothers with marketing skills for their handmade creations by collaborating with trainers who work in the retail industry.

She started Suri to teach single mums sewing skills to increase their employability, and to produce marketable products into the bargain.

The Suri Centre aims to give single mothers a long-term, reliable source of income, instead of depending on financial assistance.

Sally believes that a more effective, sustainable support system for single mothers would be skill training, so they can generate their own income. That, in a small way, is what Suri is trying to do.

However, she said there is a stigma against single mothers. “For example people think if they give them sewing machines to work with, they will just sell them for quick cash.”

She also said many people assume they are scroungers who do not want to learn or go for training.

Suri produces accessories made of recycled denim, which are handmade by single mothers.

When FMT visited the Suri Centre it appeared quite industrial, with sewing machines lined up on one side of the workspace, and a finished products area. It wasn’t very busy as the mothers come and go when it suits them.

Siti, now 34, and Normah Jamaludin, were there, cutting recycled denim and sewing slippers and keychains.

Normah, 51, has been divorced for 12 years and has three children. She was a communications executive in Setiawangsa for four years, until she had to quit to care for her sick mother.

After her divorce she found herself with no income. Her ex-husband never paid alimony or child support, she said.

She had to scrape together money to give her kids extra tuition. That turned out to be worth all the scrimping and saving as two of them are now at public universities.

Suri has given her a welcome way to survive, and a skill for the future.

Now both Siti and Normah are very hopeful and happy working with Suri. They feel it’s really helping them ease their burden.

Siti said she always told her daughters to stay strong mentally and emotionally, and to work together through whatever hardships they faced.

She now thinks in hindsight that it was them who gave her strength.

“I had to recover to take care of my children. I couldn’t feel down forever.”