Part of my past work involved organising parental support groups (we call them mums and toddlers groups), aimed at asylum seeking and refugee mums of children under five, but open to anyone interested who has preschoolers. The reason for setting up these groups was that asylum seeking parents face very specific challenges. They are often isolated, nevermind the impact on their physical and mental health that the circumstances that led to them fleeing their countries has. In Glasgow, they are housed in high rise flats in areas which are not always safe. The children hardly leave the flat, neither does their mum. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work and get only 70% of income support (this has been reduced furth recently), so money is short. Children lack outdoor play, social play with peers, activities which may cost money. They are also often unable to attend nursery education (which is a statutory provision for 3 and 4 year olds but due to different access procedures for asylum seeking children and other barriers, there are children who never attend nursery education before they start school - this of course disadvantages them especially because they start school with very little English skills). The parental support groups aimed to get mums together, out of their flats, to get the children together, give both some space to play and do something positive that recharges batteries, gives ideas, helps make contacts with other mums, helps with everyday problems and generally makes everyone a bit happier.
These groups were extremely enjoyable. There was a creche, a weekly activity for parents, a drop in baby clinic where health visitors answered questions and weighed babies. We organised, encouraged those who were reluctant at first to come along. We signposted if parents came to us with problems that caused them headaches - in almost all cases, these problems could be solved easily but for someone who doesn't speak much English and doesn't know their way around, they can be very daunting indeed. Of course there's great satisfaction in being able to help with practical issues. Over time, the group also helped themselves. New friendships were formed, parents helped each other out when they struggled, informal babysitting, welcoming newcomers by those who've been there a while. Mums who were shadows of themselves, crippled by fear and depression, have laughed and were reconnected with who they really are.
We organised a range of activities, taking the ideas that the mums brought forward on board, ranging from crafts to stress relieving massage, beauty treatments, exercise, tips on parenting and ideas on how to play with children to cooking and having parties. I've learned as much as anyone else, there was a true spirit of sharing.
At one point, we started knitting "classes". We had have a tutor, a volunteer, who is a passionate knitter, retired, formerly community educator and local resident. I helped to demonstrate a few stitches too, as did my colleague. We had been blessed with donations of yarn, odd balls, some larger quantities, a colourful selection of stuff. When we started, about half of the group had no idea of knitting. After 90 minutes, everyone had knitted a square. Those who already knew how to knit, had become what is fancily termed "peer educators": out went the supportive: you're doing great, keep it going, doesn't matter if you lose every 3rd stitch, in came the: gimme that, lets unravel it and start again. Mind you, not in English, but in Somali, but the nonverbal communication was pretty international. And sure enough, one mum taught the two sitting next to them, and me a few things about knitting. Those who before had been passive learners suddenly transformed into teachers. It was magic, everybody realised that they had something to give, and something to take. Above all, we had fun, real fun. The joy of making something with your own two hands and a couple of simple needles and simple yarn, something that may become a scarf or a baby hat or a cardigan. Something to be pround of. Something to show around and yes, to show off. Something that sparkles in a very grey flat on the 16th floor.
Over the space of six months, a group of reserved, shy, partly traumatised women had been transformed into confident individuals who supported each other whenever needed. From all the activites that we had organised, the group chose to continue with knitting.
I was struck by the universality of the craft that knitting is. Never in a million years would it have occurred to me that a Somali mother and grandmother who had not been able to attend school as a woman in a country torn apart by conflict, would teach me a new cast on technique. I could hardly communicate with her, until we started to speak the language of knitting. In other women I saw the positive effect on mental health that knitting and crafting in general has, how it balances people, empowers them to make something beautiful in lives which are determined by external circumstances and powers and which have little space for beauty. The generosity of knitters who I've come across is overwhelming. Knitting will never be a profitable activity, it's all about the love of the handmade, the love of making and transforming, of connecting and caring. It's an antithesis to our world of consumerism and time is money attitude. It is slow, domestic, universal, and female (although I'd be very happy to see more male knitters!).
One week, I visited one of the mums. In her bare livingroom, in the centre of the shelf above her simple gas heater which served as the mantlepiece, right beside her family photos, was a decopatched vase which she had made in one of our meetings.