By Hannah Hempstead, Communications and Afghan Resettlement Volunteer 


My family moved to Oxford from the United States at the beginning of September, just as families were being evacuated from Afghanistan to the UK. I grumpily unpacked my knitting supplies and shoved them in the cupboard, grumbling about the inconveniences of an international move: setting up new Wi-Fi; changing phone numbers; the never-ending piles of paperwork. I missed my old knitting group, I missed my old friends, I missed my old job, and I missed my old home that made sense. Soon enough I’d be dusting off those knitting supplies to start a fibre-arts activity group with families who are still, as I write, housed in a hotel and awaiting permanent homes.

I first joined Asylum Welcome to help with behind-the-scenes work. With my background in higher education and no foreign-language skills beyond German, I had written off the idea of being useful in a people-facing role and asked if I could help with the website. But the Communications and Volunteer Coordinator, Hannah Underwood, and the Policy and Advocacy Coordinator, Hari Reed, took the time to get to know me and helped identify ways to both apply my skills and branch out into new experiences. Because of their encouragement, I now have the joy of getting to know the Afghan families using a special ‘language’: knitting!

Why a knitting group?

When the families in the ACRS and ARAP schemes were evacuated and brought to Oxfordshire, they were placed in hotels to wait while their information was  processed by the government and new homes found. However, one of the chief challenges of the Afghan resettlement schemes is identifying landlords willing to rent properties to newly-arrived refugee families. As the political and public debates unfold about the deeply problematic Nationality and Borders Bill, and seven months after arriving from a country torn apart by the Taliban, many families continue to stay in ‘temporary accommodation’ dreaming of a stable home.

While you would imagine that being in such close proximity to other families might mean a person would feel starved for personal time away from others, many of the client families can feel isolated or adrift because they do not yet have a normal sense of space and place. Uprooting your entire life to flee for safety is scary, painful, and lonely.

So, why knitting? In my experience, knitting brings people together and gives them a shared and safe ‘language’ beyond words. I believe this is the reason the activity has become so popular.

Knitting together

Our knitting group meets fortnightly on Saturday mornings. I am joined by long-time volunteer Helen, who has introduced the magic of pom-pom making to the group! Thanks to the generosity of several Oxford locals who have donated wool, we are able to provide the families with the supplies they need to participate in the activity.

Twitter post about wool donation

Several skilled adults come along simply to stitch in a social setting. A few women are putting us to shame with beautiful handiwork like the beautiful white crocheted cardigan in the photo below. Others come and observe whilst they chat with friends. Still others, mainly teenage and younger girls, are quickly picking up a new hobby to enjoy on the school bus or during free time.

knitted white cardigan

‘E’, a fast learner, comes faithfully each week, but arrived at several sessions with empty needles. She said with a laugh, ‘Miss Hannah! I knit, and then I open it it, and then I knit, and then I open it!’ She is describing the process of unravelling, or ‘frogging’ a project when you are not happy with your results. After we had a giggle about this classic knitter’s plight, we finally landed on a project she is committed to completing, and this past weekend she finally showed up with an intact, in-progress project. ‘E’ is making her very own pink and white striped hat with a pom-pom.

To me, though, the group isn’t just about the jumpers, hats, or scarves we complete (although those are fun, too), it’s about more than that. I wrote above that knitting is a shared and safe ‘language’ that brings people together. Participating in a shared activity together, teaching each other new stitching skills, digging through big bags of donated wool, and celebrating milestones like new knitter’s first-ever row of stitches, has provided us all with a shared space to build community and friendship.

As a newcomer to the UK, my volunteer experience at Asylum Welcome has become one of the most significant things that has made Oxford feel like a home to me in the seven months since my arrival. And that is what Asylum Welcome does: help people regain a sense of dignity, space, place and home. Whether you are considering donating, volunteering, advocacy or offering your property for rent to a newly-arrived family, I encourage you not to give up on our new Afghan neighbours who are still looking for home.

Get involved

We are looking for volunteers (with enhanced DBS checks) who are available during the Easter school holidays and who would be willing to come and run sessions for Afghan children.

Dates: weekdays from 11th to 22nd April
Times: 10am-12pm

Possible activities: homework club, teaching English through play, storytelling, reading books to children, playing indoor and outdoor games, simple crafts. Books and games can be provided.

At least 2 people per session (unless someone is very experienced and confident to run a session alone).

Contact if you can help or want to support our work in other ways!

We are still welcoming donations of yarn and knitting materials. If you can help, please drop them off at our office during our opening hours (Mon – Fri, 9.30am – 4pm).