Knitting for refugees: the Londoners keeping refugees warm over winter
Touched by the unfolding drama of the refugee crisis, two women in London have been trying to improve the plight of the world’s displaced, one stitch at a time.
Knit Aid, a social enterprise, began as a thoroughly practical British response to the refugee crisis. The aim was to keep refugees warm over the winter.
Shahnaz Ahmed, 33, and Karen Whitelaw, 31, felt compelled to act when the Syria refugee crisis burst onto the world’s consciousness in 2015, as hundreds of thousands clambered onto rickety boats to cross the Mediterranean.
Ahmed, who was at the time knitting for her newborn daughter, came up with the idea of asking for donations of knitwear for refugees arriving in Europe as well as those in the Middle East. She was soon inundated by offers on social media.
“People kept emailing me,” said Ahmed, a graphic designer, who started knitting at eight. ”It was so heartening, but also overwhelming.”
Knit Aid is just one many British civil society groups that have sprung up in recent years in response to the global refugee crisis. Across the country, individuals have banded together to help wherever they can, for example, hosting refugees or helping them navigate the complex rules around asylum.
Whitelaw, who campaigns to improve mental health support for young people, learned to knit at seven and was thinking along the same lines as Ahmed. The two, who live in south London, joined forces, and Knit Aid was born. For the pair, knitting has become a form of social activism to help, and ultimately empower, refugees.
“We saw the online appeal for donations and we started knitting, it was too good a chance to pass up”
Since its inception two years ago, Knit Aid has attracted volunteers from all over the world, as far away as Japan and Chile. Volunteers have made blankets, scarves, gloves, beanies, snoods, from good quality yarn, usually donated. The group holds fundraising workshops where new volunteers can acquire knitting skills, and the Knit Aid website features Ahmed giving step-by-step instructions on how to knit a cosy blanket.
Initially, Ahmed stored the donations in a spare room at her house, but that soon started overflowing. Knit Aid now uses a 100 sq ft storage room in the London suburb of New Malden, but even that’s bursting at the seams.
In the past two years, Knit Aid has sent 8,000 items to Calais, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria itself.
These items help, in a small way, a crisis of global proportions. According to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, over 5 million refugees remain in countries near to Syria. And so far this year, 162,114 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean, with more than 3,000 estimated dead or missing.
Knit Aid works with grassroots volunteer and non-government organisations in deciding what to send and where. “We rely on these groups,” Ahmed and Whitelaw told UNHCR over coffee in Wimbledon. “At the start we sent blankets with lots of colours, but we were told ‘no light colours,’” because of the dirty conditions in some camps.
Knit Aid is small, relying on fewer than 100 volunteers, and is hence nimble and can act quickly to needs on the ground. The response has been particularly strong from the US -- helped by Amanda Seyfried, the actress and singer who spread the word. The US now provides more items for Knit Aid than the UK.
Ahmed and Whitelaw believe Knit Aid’s small size partly explains why it had such an instant mass appeal.
“Maybe there’s a public distrust of anything that’s big,” Ahmed said. “There is no red tape, people appreciate that, they know they get straight answers from us and they know where the money (and donations) are going.”
“Empowering refugees is at the heart of what we’re doing.”
Whitelaw added: “There is no ulterior motive, we can be adaptable, but [lack of] resources is the downside.”
Both expressed frustration at the way refugees are portrayed in the media. “It was very dehumanising,” Whitelaw said.
Knit Aid relies on volunteers like Pat Dobson and Maggie Pound, who meet fortnightly for two hours of knitting at a community centre in New Malden. On a recent evening, armed with big bags of yarn and snacking on crisps, Dobson, Pound and three others were knitting squares for a blanket, their sixth for Knit Aid.
“We saw the online appeal for donations and we started knitting, it was too good a chance to pass up,” said Dobson, whose group of half a dozen or so volunteers range from 26 to 67.
Pound added that the act of knitting itself helps humanise a crisis of huge proportions: “You are doing something personal, you are doing what you can. It’s such an enormous problem, but it’s like that saying, ‘how do you eat an elephant - one mouthful at a time’.
The founders of Knit Aid are keen to emphasise the personal connection between volunteers and refugees. Each gift comes with a note, an indication that the knitter, while undertaking what is essentially an individual activity, is thinking of the recipients.
But Ahmed and Whitelaw want to go beyond donations. To that end, they plan to set up knitting workshops in refugee settlements to provide high quality yarn so the refugees can knit for themselves.
“Empowering refugees,” Ahmed said, “is at the heart of what we’re doing.”