by Sara Khan
It’s been three years since Europe’s biggest influx of refugees since the second world war. According to the UN, more than one million refugees had crossed into Europe by the end of 2015 with the majority fleeing conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Many of the refugees were carrying little more than the clothes they are wearing on their journeys. To this day, many European governments are struggling to provide adequate support, and tens of thousands of people every day need food, shelter, clean water and sanitation.
Like many of us, Shahnaz Ahmed watched the horrors of the crisis unfold on TV. She decided to take action and started a craft charity aiming to help and empower this displaced community through knitting. As part of Refugee Week, we spoke to Shahnaz about how this one moment inspired an international community to come together to take action and how you can help through Knit Aid.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came up with the idea to start Knit Aid?
In my day job, I'm a Graphic Designer and Creative Strategist working in the creative and advertising industry. On the side of this day job, I run Knit Aid with my co-director Karen Whitelaw who works in the youth charity sector.
I came up with the idea of Knit Aid during my maternity leave three years ago. I had a year off to look after my new-born daughter, and in between changing nappies, feeding and all the other new-born joy; I found myself knitting more and more importantly, having a break from my career to think about the things I cared about.
I remember the exact moment the concept of Knit Aid started to develop. It was around June 2015, I was knitting some chunky beanies at home and watching the news, my daughter in a bouncer at my feet and I was watching the refugee crisis on the news as it reached an all-time high. As the world scrambled to find solutions, grassroots organisations were popping up to provide urgent aid where others could not. One of these grassroots orgs, Calaid, were calling out for donations at our nearest camp at the time – the Calais 'Jungle'. Some of the items they needed were beanies, scarves, blankets and other warm clothing. As I found myself knitting those very items, it made complete sense to send my next knitted gifts to people who truly needed them.
For anyone who knits, they know that knitting is a slow, meditative and thoughtful process. And in the time that I knitted up one beanie for a refugee in Calais, I thought up the idea to open a Facebook page to ask if any other knitters wanted to donate with me. I came up with the idea of Knit Aid and everything that I wanted it to become. When the beanie was finished, I created the brand and social media pages, and watched in awe when hundreds of donations came flooding to me from knitters in not only the UK, but globally. It was in the first Knit Aid collection that I realised that I'd opened a floodgate of knitted love that I could, and would no longer close. Knit Aid provided a tangible way for people to make a difference for a cause they deeply cared about but didn't know how to create real impact.
My co-director, Karen, came up with a similar concept separately to me around the same time, and we decided the join forces and run Knit Aid together.
Why did the refugee crisis drive you to take action?
The refugee crisis inspired me to take action on a few levels. Firstly, as with all of our knitters, there are so many people who empathise with people who have had to flee their homes out of no fault of their own, due to political unrest, wars, or unsafety. I think the proximity of where this crisis was taking place also meant that we could no longer think of it as a 'far away' problem. The crisis was happening on our continent, on our doorstep, and it's near impossible to not take action – as a nation, community or individual.
Secondly, on a more personal level, I am the daughter of immigrant parents, who were given the opportunity to migrate to the UK in the 70s for a better life. When I see immigrants and displaced people, I don't think of them as 'other', I see myself in them. I see my family, my parents, siblings, my daughter. They could be us and we could be them.
How have people responsed to the initiative?
I've found the response to be overwhelming! I genuinely thought I'd receive a few hundred donations at most, and that it would be a one off collection. I didn’t however expect to receive donations from every corner of the earth – from Japan, Malaysia, Australia, South America, not to mention our largest contributors in the USA and the UK. To date, we've received and distributed over 14,000 donations in refugee camps across Europe and the Middle East. We've expanded from over-filling the spare room in my house, to a large storage unit where we now accept and send donations from. From our UK base, we've also expanded and opened Knit Aid USA in New York, due to demand from our American knitters!
What are some of the ways Knit Aid helps refugees?
From the start, Knit Aid has always been about empowering displaced people. Though we started with filling an immediate need to help people stay warm in camps, an equally important aspect was to humanize them and help them to feel like they were receiving gifts, not donations. We encourage our knitters to write notes with their knits, and often knitters will make winter warmer sets that are wrapped up beautifully. We’ve received feedback that the words mean a lot at a time and place where there is so little hope. These messages connect people together and let them know that people are on their side.
We want the displaced to feel that they are supported, heard and that we are fighting for them in other ways than just donations. A development of empowering refugees is by distributing knitting materials to allow them to empower themselves, knitting items for themselves or their families, or selling their knitted items in local markets to help sustain themselves.
We also run knitting workshops in London for resettled young refugees to help battle isolation, depression and learn a new craft – a craft that transcends language. We teach a skill that is fun and new but the most impactful part is what knitting brings out in people. The fastest knitters we’ve ever taught have been our young resettled refugees, and we teach them without having to speak their language if they choose not to, and we watch them teach each other even when they don’t speak each other’s languages. It’s a really beautiful thing to witness, and shows the power of crafting in communities.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
The refugee crisis is ever changing and developing, and quite frankly it’s getting worse, not better. Not enough has changed, people have been living in terrible conditions for longer, and there are more women and children displaced than ever before. No family should ever have to go through what refugee families are going through, and until people are resettled in places they are happy with and feel empowered to rebuild their lives, the crisis will not get better.
We are often told by our distributing partners that there will never be enough donations to send to camps because there are so many people. A challenge we have is keeping up with the demand, while Karen and I run Knit Aid on the sides of our full time jobs. We have an amazing small but mighty team of volunteers that help run Knit Aid but a challenge for us is scaling the org to meet the needs.
Another challenge we’ve had is ensuring everything we do is truly empowering to refugees. It’s something we are working on and hopefully with time we will be able to connect our community of knitters with displaced people in the most meaningful ways possible. Watch this space!
In what ways do you think refugees have made an impact in the UK?
Refugees are a part of our history, our culture and our present. There are refugees who have made food we love to consume, music we love to listen to, invented ideas we love to take part in. Refugees have been through some of the most difficult life experiences, and are hugely valuable to society at large and we fully support welcoming more into the UK, Europe and beyond.
What advice would you give others wanting to start a project helping refugees?
I would say, lead with refugees’ best interests at heart, first and foremost. Don’t do what you think would be right, or cool. Put them and their needs first. For example, if displaced people in the camps told us they didn’t need knitted items anymore, we would stop right away. Our organisation isn’t about helping us feel better, it’s about empowering displaced people, and I believe that should be at the heart of any project that aims to improve refugees’ lives.
Ready to make a difference?
To mark Refugee Week, we have joined forces with Knit Aid and Wool & The Gang to launch our #KnitForRefugees campaign. Download our Craft Club’s woolly hat tutorial to make and donate a hat to Knit Aid by 2 July 2018. We can also offer you an exclusive 25% on Wool & The Gang’s Sugar Baby Alpaca wool by using code CRAFTCLUB.
Show us how you’re getting on by using #KnitForRefugees and make sure you send your donation by 2 July to Knit Aid, C/O Big Yellow Self Storage, Wyvern Estate Beverley Way, Beverley Way, New Malden, KT3 4PH.
*Knit Aid is a non-profit social enterprise that is a separate entity to Wool & The Gang.