I arrive at the Burberry store to interview Elisa Sednaoui Dellal, and am told she'll just be a few minutes. More than happy to peruse the new season offerings in-store, I take a look around and spy Elisa, a pile of clothes in hand, helping a woman shop. It's a refreshing visual for someone as well-known as she is, and one that speaks to her genuine interest in the people around her, celebrity or not; something I learn firsthand during our talk.
When she's done with her shopping spree assist, we sit down on the couches in the store to chat. "I flew in yesterday," she tells me, "and I fly out tomorrow night." The whirlwind trip is for Burberry, for both their Art of the Trench event, and this in-store appearance from which proceeds are being donated to her namesake foundation. "This week hasn't been high on sleep," she says with a laugh, taking it all in her stride and showing no signs of the aforementioned fatigue.
Our conversation quickly turns to the Elisa Sednaoui Foundation, which she set up in 2013. "It was born from a desire to give opportunity to children," she says. "It started in Egypt but the goal is to expand far beyond that. I always wanted to work in the social field."
"I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do but I knew that I was drawn by the social. With this project I really managed to combine my network, everything I’ve learned and developed through my career, all of the connections, to really put it all together with my knowledge that comes from my work on the ground."
Of all of the countries in which to begin, why Egypt? "I grew up there, I spent time there, my father was living there, I was there all the time. There’s a personal connection but also a personal understanding of the community, the culture, the tradition, the things that can be worked on while celebrating those traditions," she explains, thoughtfully. "The idea is to celebrate the traditions and give opportunities to kids so that they can grow up as problem solvers so that they will be able to look at things and issues from different perspectives and find solutions. These centres (which focus on creative learning) are not hubs for artists, we’re not promoting the idea that everybody has to be an artist. The idea is that, thanks to art, and it has been proven, you’re able to become a better electrician, a better doctor for whatever you want to do." She adds, "It's taken a long time for Egypt to be the country it wants to be and to be a functioning country. I think the only way you aid that is by empowering kids through education. So we go and we fill in the gap between school and home because there's nothing, especially in the rural areas. These kids, you know, they have a lot of responsibility, they start working with their parents early on because they already have this weight of having to provide for their family. That's honourable, but you need to provide them with a space where they try different things, and also where they can just be children."
The Foundation's biggest achievement so far, she tells me, is "a 20-year old girl, who now has a job and is the paid the same as men, and feels relevant to her community." A smile comes across her face as she recounts this story, though she's not resting on her laurels - she wants these opportunities to be available around the world. "The lack of educative opportunities, in Italian, we have a beautiful phrase for it - povertà educative - which means educative poverty, which is something that affects everyone today. Our starting point is, of course, the disadvantaged kids, but you know I just came from Italy where I've just started my first workshop and the reality is, Italy is a country where even kids who have everything, like the phone or the iPad, you know these commercial items which are a symbol of status, still don't have enough opportunities either. Yes, they go to school, but phones, the internet and TV, whilst important, are also very powerful and bombard them with information. Things happen so quickly and we're not really nurturing these kids with creative stimulation. There's a need for this type of work everywhere." It's reassuring too, that the communities in which the Foundation is currently operating are fully on board. "They've reacted fantastically, it's unbelievable," she says, with a look of both genuine surprise and gratitude.
The plan is to train groups of people at a time, who can then train others, starting a sort of domino effect. "The best way to implement a program is to train 10 people, who can then train 100, and so on. This will help us to expand in Egypt and the rest of the MENA region."
The Middle East is a region she holds close to her heart, and when I ask what she loves most about it, her answer is heartwarmingly honest. "I love the warmth, I love the connection I have with Middle Eastern women. For me the Middle East is home. I breathe the air and it's familiar. It's my father, it's my childhood. I love the culture, the richness of it. There's also an openness in the Middle East. I think people underestimate how curious people here are. They're very engaging."
With that, our time comes to an end, but not before Elisa turns the tables on me and asks about where I'm from, how I came to live in Dubai, what I like most about it, and when I got married. She has an interest in the people around her that isn't forced or fake for the cameras, but comes from an innate sense of curiosity and wonder. She truly is a model citizen. - Maddison Glendinning