While volunteering with the International Rescue Committee in the early 2000s, Paula Minnis met countless refugee women who were exceptionally creative and motivated but had limited career opportunities. They each faced obstacles like language barriers and limited childcare options that kept them out of the workforce. In 2009, Minnis, a fashion industry veteran, was inspired to launch GAIA Empowered Women, a lifestyle brand that provided sustainable employment, living wages, and flexible work-from-home arrangements to resettled refugee women in North Texas.
The GAIA storefront, a decades-old carriage house in Uptown, stocked a selection of handmade goods like pillows, jewelry, purses, and accessories in punchy colors and lively prints. Upstairs, the GAIA artisans used their sewing and jewelry-making skills to craft each product and give new life to vintage textiles and eco-friendly materials.
After a decade in business, Minnis announced in 2019 that GAIA’s doors were closing so that she could focus on her family. “I’ve always said that when I started GAIA, it wasn’t because I thought the world needed another handbag line,” she said on the GAIA blog about the decision, “but because I thought that refugee women deserved a warm embrace in their new country, and to have dignified, living-wage work as they rebuilt their lives in a foreign land.”
“They are mothers, wives, artisans, homeowners, and Americans,” she continued. “[Through working at GAIA,] these women have transformed their lives. The warm cocoon we created has served its purpose, and the butterflies are ready to emerge.”
As Minnis and her team prepared to close up shop in May 2019, they discovered a need for sewing and assembly services for other Dallas small businesses. A new iteration of GAIA began to take shape. In the early months of the pandemic, several GAIA artisans found work making masks for healthcare workers; the team constructed and donated over 2,000 masks in all. The artisans also started to work with ethically-minded companies like children’s clothing line Dondolo and customizable knitwear brand Le Lion.
At the helm of these projects was Bothina Matar (who also goes by Buthayna), a master artisan who has been a part of the GAIA team for half a decade. Matar, her husband, and their two young children fled war-torn Syria in 2013 and arrived in Dallas in 2015. She and her mother-in-law Huda began working at GAIA in 2016. In the years since, she has used her carefully honed skills to train new artisans who join the GAIA team.
In an Instagram post on August 2, Minnis announced that she had officially passed the baton to Matar, who will continue to connect designers and creators with GAIA’s expert artisans for projects like supplemental sewing, jewelry assembly, and product packaging.
“This incredibly talented, inspiring, and deserving woman will carry GAIA into its next chapter, now to be known as GAIA Mishwar,” said Minnis. “The Arabic word ‘Mishwar’ translates to ‘Journey’ in English… it was Buthayna’s idea, and I cannot think of a more apt word to encompass the journey of GAIA, the journey of Buthayna and all the other artisans we employed throughout the years, and the journey of women all over the world.”
Read the full statement below and follow GAIA at @gaiaforwomen for more updates.