When I started thinking about writing a post for International Women’s Day (8th March…) I wasn’t sure how possible it would be to think beyond the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Then ‘just’ 1.5 million people – read women and children – had been displaced. At that point I thought that my International Women’s Day post would focus on how imperial wars led by men impact on women, children, our communities, and our futures. As I return to this post 2 weeks later this figure has increased to an estimated 3.7 million with a further 6.48 million internally displaced, demonstrating this point more eloquently than all the words I can muster right now could possibly.
So why the 2 week wait between beginning and publishing this post?
I delayed publishing this post because I wasn’t entirely happy with it, it just didn’t seem ‘enough’.
I was writing while visiting the UK, being torn by competing demands on my time and headspace and balancing writing the post between other types of intervention. For example, writing to my MP about the inadequate government response to people fleeing and wishing to come to the UK, publicising what was happening, or in fact not happening, via social media and encouraging other to do the same.
Now, as the war in Ukraine continues, as wars and conflicts continue elsewhere, as the fruits of my making have been donated, as I’m close to sewing up another blanket for donation, as our immediate responses are turning to daily acts of ongoing and repeated support, and as we build capacity into our community activities to support yet another group of people fleeing their homes, I want to say something here, however inadequate it may feel.
I want to talk about how our making makes tangible ‘things’ that have tangible impacts like keeping people warm, but our making also makes meaning and relationships between people. It is one way in which we as individuals can reach out to others, how we can reach beyond the often inadequate words and actions of our politicians directly to others at a time of need. One of the things about this type of making is that we don’t know the recipients, we will never know who they are are, and in many ways it doesn’t matter, there is no reciprocity or strained concept of ‘knitworthiness’ at work here. One makes and donates to unknown others, known only in their need and vulnerability, recognising simply a shared humanity.
It has taken the 2 weeks delay to be able to articulate this and to think beyond the immediate response to the invasion of Ukraine to the broader themes that have shaped a part of my making, and the communities of making that I have been a part of, over the last few years. So this is what I want to share today, a little late but sill prompted by International Women’s Day, and perhaps more importantly, the women of these communities who literally make the world a better, more compassionate, place stitch by stitch and treble by treble.
The theme for this years International Women’s day was ‘Break the Bias’ and we were invited to:
Imagine a gender equal world.
A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination.
A world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
A world where difference is valued and celebrated.
Together we can forge women’s equality.
Collectively we can all Break the Bias
I want to take this as an invitation to revisit and explore more thoroughly some themes I’ve touched on here on the blog before, about how our making, both knitting and crochet, can relate to international conflict and be a highly personal intervention in global geopolitics.
The Tuesday following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a selection of hats, scarves and blankets that I had knit and crocheted left Siena to go to Lviv to offer warmth to Ukrainians fleeing war. They went along with medication and other vital supplies in a shipment organised by the Ukrainian community in Siena. We have subsequently contributed again to these shipments which go from Siena with supplies from the local area to Lviv and then on via local channels to some of the most besieged areas of Ukraine.
On that first Saturday following the invasion we had attended the anti-war demonstration at the Duomo in Siena, organised by a range of groups including local Women’s groups.
Most of the Ukrainians present were women. This is not surprising given the vast majority of Ukrainian migrants to Italy are women. This gendered migration is linked to how Italy looks after its older and vulnerable population. Largely middle aged women leave their families in ‘the east’ to come to Italy to look after mostly vulnerable older people in their own homes as live-in ‘badanti’. They send money back to their families, supporting their children from afar to access higher education and build a better life, while day to day childcare is undertaken by their own mothers and the wider family. Many of these women are qualified as nurses or even doctors, but while their qualifications do not transfer, their skills certainly do. Paid to provide personal care, badanti often provide nursing care, medical advice and emotional support to the wider family during end of life care.
It was my late mother-in-law’s badante who told us of the local shop that was the collection point for aid to Ukraine through which we sent our contributions. We could simply have made financial donations to larger NGOs working on the ground in Ukraine, and we did, but we also thought it was important to do something practical and tangible in our local community, to support Ukrainians in our community to support their loved ones and their country. I felt quite strongly the need to show those who live and work in our community, in some of the least well paid jobs, separated from family, that they and their contribution are valued and that we stand in solidarity with them and their loved ones. All too often we see migrants targeted and marginalised in our community and I think the understandable effects of this could be seen in the initial calls for help. It seemed to me, even through my dodgy Italian, that there was a tone of of scepticism as to whether many Italians would support these calls. As time has passed and the initial delivery has become regular and frequent, and peoples’ donations have shifted to meet the most immediate and acute needs, this tone has warmed and the sense of community built together. There are now numerous collection points, taking items to different areas on the border and into Ukraine, and reflecting the different needs of people in different places in Ukraine.
However, while totally committed to these acts of making and community building and to their value, on their own they do little to address the wider biases, stereotypes and discrimination we see across the globe. Indeed much of the media coverage of Ukraine has not only failed to challenge such biases but has risked reinforcing them. This is not something I want to do so I want to widen the discussion a little here.
In the first week of the invasion I attended an event with journalists from the Italian conflict monitoring organisation Atlante delle Guerre e dei Conflitti del Mondo. What became clear from the presentation is the persistence and pervasiveness of war and conflict around the globe.
This is no surprise.
We know this.
But it is sobering to reflect more widely on the wars and conflicts that we hear about on the news from time to time. Most of those began with outpourings of condemnation and outrage which then faded to a low murmur. They too create casualties and they create displaced people, often of the most vulnerable, and often to camps or into neighbouring countries concentrating the need for resources and calls for international assistance that go largely unheeded. All too often these conflicts quickly slip off the news agenda.
I want to share a few examples, which I know I’ve talked about in passing here before because they too have been, and continue to be, an inspiration and focus for my making.
How often do we hear of Syria, now 11 years into conflict with an estimated almost 7 million internally displaced people and the same again externally, mostly in neighbouring countries?* Aleppo has been mentioned frequently in the news recently, not in its own right or in relation to the ongoing Syrian conflict, but as a salutary tale of what Vladimir Putin has been a party to in the past and the level of devastation we can realistically fear for Ukraine.
Twice as many Ukrainians have crossed into European neighbours since the invasion compared to the numbers of Syrian refugees that entered Europe and who were met with opposition and fences. These responses threatened the unity of the European Union at one of its clear low points. That said it is important not to falsely homogenise populations and communities and in doing so erase diversity. Those fleeing Ukraine are not only Ukrainian, with journalists speaking to Syrian women who having fled their homeland then found themselves forced into fleeing a second ‘home’.
I think of Syria now because the hats and blankets that went to Ukraine are made with Syrian refugees in mind. My making has been a small contribution to humanitarian efforts in Syria over a number of years and I made reference to it in this post in 2019. My plan had been to bring these blankets and hats back when visiting the UK and send them up to Birmingham to be sent to Syria. Then covid, and a change in border regulations in Turkey meant that hand knits no longer met the regulations stipulating new clothing and items with tags only. Hand in Hand who co-ordinate this effort canvassed donors who agreed that existing knitted items be re-directed to Gaza to get them to people in need rather than sitting in a warehouse, but I was unable to get my blankets from me to them in the timeframe.
As I started this post storms had torn through makeshift shelters and tents in refugee camps in Syria highlighting that the need in Syria is still considerable. The internally displaced ‘housed’ in these camps are living in desperate situations. It’s still possible to donate either financially or in kind if your items meet the criteria set by border regulations, you can check here at the Hand in Hand website and get time updates via the facebook group. Hopefully, the covid related restrictions will be lifted in the future and it will be possible to send handmade items once again.
What silence largely surrounds the 7 year conflict in Yemen, despite the humanitarian need generally exceeding many conflicts we hear of more routinely? I know it has been hard at different times to get aid into Yemen.
Again in this post, I spoke about the knitted baby blankets that were sent to Yemen a couple of years ago. These were part of a shipment of moses baskets filled with a range of items, blankets, clothing, nappies, etc for mums of newborns. Again this initiative was led by women who recognised the need and did something tangible to make a difference.
Sometimes it can be difficult to get physical aid into countries and organisations seek financial donations. I recognise not everyone can contribute in this way, but it may be possible to turn making skills into a fundraising opportunities, especially if you can link into a group of likeminded individuals. US based Yemenaid have some good ideas for fundraising on their website and a google search will bring up a list of agencies working in Yemen and how their work can be supported.
I also started writing this post in the shadow of a further 9 people having died and been washed up on the shores of Lesvos in Greece, home of the largest refugee camp in Europe until Moria burnt down in 2020 to be replaced by yet more ‘temporary’ reception centres. I air quote ‘temporary’ because people spend years in these European camps waiting to be processed by systems that really do not want to admit people so desperate to flee conflict, that they take risks that most of us can hardly imagine. The contrast between the response from Europe to Ukrainian refugees compared to those accessing Europe through Greece, and also Italy, could not be more stark.
Again boxes of blankets, both my own and from the Blackpool knitting group which I then co-ordinated went to the Hope Project which works to support refugees detained on Lesvos. In March 2019 I posted about 64 hats that had gone to this project the previous winter. To find out how to support this project, financial or by sending aid, your can check out the website and keep up to date through the facebook group. This project is geared up to receiving physical aid and will help you get your pallet or container of aid to them.
I heard about and participated in all three of these initiatives through a wonderful Facebook Group, 60mt Crafters, of active and focussed women, who have literally moved mountains of hand made knitted and crocheted goods to places where they can make a real difference over the years. Their current campaign ‘We will wrap you’ is a wonderfully inspiring and empowering campaign that encourages and supports makers to reach out to organisations in their local communities that may benefit from a good supply or warm hand knits and crochets. This is in addition to the international work not instead of, so there really are lots of ways that we can get involved and use our making to make a difference.
I could have chosen many other conflicts to reflect on just how widely people live with war and conflict in our world, but I chose these because they are all conflicts that have motivated me personally to mobilise my knitting skills and crochet to help. To use my skills, time and consideration to intervene to support and help people when most at need.
When I posted about the hats that went to the Hope Project in Greece I also talked about needing to be intentional not only in relation to our crafting but also in talking about our, or at least my, motivation for knitting for donation. I’ve not always been comfortable in doing this myself, and I think that this was also one of the reasons I was wary about hitting ‘send’ my first draft of this post. Back in 20019 I claimed that:
For me it is one way in which I can enact my political sentiments; both a statement and an act of opposition to the absolute inhumanity of the conditions and the response of national governments to the plight of refuges in Europe and those affected by conflict in Syria and Yemen. It is a way of turning my anger into something constructive, and in doing so, I want to feed the hope of those who risk everything for a better life for themselves and their families, a basic human instinct that should be recognised as such not quashed. I am a person of privilege, I live comfortably in a wealthy country and I refuse accept that we cannot, or should not, aspire and work towards a more effective management and equitable distribution of global resources.
Now with the invasion of Ukraine we see yet another example of absolute inhumanity at work and if there is something that can be done about it, however small, the compulsion to do so is strong. However, it is important that what that ‘doing something’ looks like, is led by those whose know the local conditions and have the local networks to identify what is needed and the ability to distribute it. After the first shipment from Siena with warm clothing and blankets to which we contributed, the priority shifted to medical items and baby/kids items, so our contribution changed. The ability to respond and follow local need is so important to make sure that good intentions are mobilised effectively rather than simply creating more problems by overwhelming people and local systems with ‘stuff’ that isn’t what is needed.
However, with my stock of blankets and hats depleted I’ve picked up my needles and hooks again and I’m restocking. Even if these are not the priority for Ukraine right now, unfortunately there will be other places where they will be needed and it will be possible to get them to in the future.
As ever I’d love to hear from you if you are involved in making a difference through your crafting in this way. Please share your ideas, experiences and links to projects. Any top tips** and things you’ve learnt along the way are so very welcome.
Until next time, take time and I hope your making brings you solace and meaning.
*The displacement of Syrian Refugees demonstrates the pattern of neighbours supporting the largest numbers of people while richer countries contribute less: Turkey – 3.7 million, Lebanon – 855,000, Jordan – 668,000, Iraq – 247,000, Egypt – 132,000, compared to 1.3 million Syrians requesting asylum across all of Europe in 2015 at the height of the crisis, and 18,000 admitted to the US between 2011 and 2016 source).
** My top tip when donating knitted and crocheted blankets – It makes it easier to deal with them if they are folded or rolled and packed into a bag with a label saying what size they are. I use those cotton totes that are so often given away free whether you want them or not. This makes it easier pack, ship and for recipients to take them with them.