Knitted hats for refugees craft a warm welcome

By Grace Kennedy

Knitting hats. It’s simple. For Rebecca Blanchard, it is a way to relax. And now, it’s a way to say welcome home to new Canadians.

Blanchard and Wenda Macdonald are the women in charge of Nova Scotia’s 25,000 Tuques initiative. A volunteer-led program, it aims to bring the iconic Canadian hat to Syrian refugees coming to Canada.

25,000 Tuques started in Quebec under the motto “the only true enemy is the cold.” Although not an official organization, 25,000 Tuques serves as a rallying point and source of information for knitters. Now there are satellite groups across the country – many in Quebec, but also one in Vancouver and three in the Maritimes.

The Nova Scotia group has about 780 likes on Facebook – its way of estimating involvement, if not necessarily active knitters. And although it does not officially use the Quebec slogan, Blanchard said the motivation is the same.

“It comes back to the whole warm welcome idea,” she said. “We want people to feel safe, we want people to feel welcome. These people are going to be our neighbours and our classmates and our co-workers, ultimately, and we want them to feel like they are a part of this community and this country.”

“We live in a place where we have the resources and we have the space,” she continued, “and generally we have kind and lovely people that are willing and able to lend a hand. And we want (refugees) to feel like this could be home.”

Rebecca Blanchard, one of the organizers for 25,000 Tuques, first learnt knitting from her grandmother when she was five. (Photo: Grace Kennedy)
Rebecca Blanchard, one of the organizers for 25,000 Tuques, first learnt knitting from her grandmother when she was five. (Photo: Grace Kennedy)

The name 25,000 Tuques plays on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election promise to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by early this year.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, more than four million Syrians have fled the country and even more have been internally displaced. Many have fled to the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and more half a million refugees from Syria have entered Europe by boat.

Ten thousand refugees were meant to enter Canada by the end of 2015 – as of Jan.11, just over 9,500 had resettled. Another 15,000 will come to Canada by March 2016.

In late November, Immigration Minister Lena Metlege Diab announced Nova Scotia could take in 1,500 refugees. Since Nov. 4, Halifax has welcomed 61 and other Nova Scotia communities have taken in 37.

Through the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, many of them have received cold-weather gear from 25,000 Tuques and other initiatives such as A Warm Welcome.

“Wenda and I were specifically looking for the 25,000 Tuques initiative, but there were also others who were looking to donate other items: mitts and scarves and hats and cowls,” Blanchard said. She learned about A Warm Welcome through The Loop, a yarn store on Barrington Street, and joined forces with the group.

A Warm Welcome, organized through the knitting website Ravelry rather than Facebook, accepts donations of all knitted items – not just hats.

A Warm Welcome and 25,000 Tuques share the same drop boxes and bring their donations to the Immigrant Services Association together. Although not all refugees go through the association, Blanchard said “it seemed to be the best fit” and the best way to get the items to refugees.

The groups have 13 drop-off locations across the province: five are in university libraries, one is in a pottery store in Truro, and the rest are in yarn stores across the province.

Mimi Fautley, owner of The Loop, said she’s seen a dozen different people come into her store to drop off donations.

“Some of those people have dropped off great whopping bags of dozens of things,” she said. “There was one bag that was loads and loads of crocheted owl hats with little ear flaps.”

Since the initiative first started in November, 25,000 Tuques has received more than 150 hats from across the province. It has also received other donations: the local fibre company Fleece Artist donated skeins of yarn for knitters to use, and finished hats made from the material are starting to come back.

Some of the donated hats come complete with cable patterns, pompoms, ribbing and colourful patterns. Others are simple.

“You get people who are like ‘I just learnt how to knit hats and I want to knit 10,’” Blanchard said. “They’ll do that and their patterns will be relatively simple. And that’s great. They’re warm and they do the job. And there’s also a lot of people where it’s a pastime that they do and they don’t really have to think about it. They just keep knitting.”

Knitters can drop off hats with handmade washing instructions or welcome tags. Unlabelled hats are given tags that welcome refugees to Canada in English, French and Arabic.

Although Blanchard doesn’t expect donations to exceed the number of refugees, Nova Scotians have been extremely generous in the past – the refugee donations drop-off centre in Bayers Lake closed nearly four weeks early because of the number of donations. If the same happens with 25,000 Tuques, Blanchard said it will give hats to other local charities.

“We will not be sending hats anywhere else. They will stay here,” she said. “In the spirit of giving and helping, I don’t think people will be upset to know that their efforts are going to go towards other people that are in need as well.”

25,000 Tuques will continue accepting donations until March, when they will evaluate it’s number of donations and the government’s plan for resettling more refugees.