Idea to make blankets to welcome refugees quickly gains traction
Saturday, March 18, 2017

Cecilia Rajanayagam was on her way home from a working vacation in Belize when she first heard about the refugees crossing into Canada on foot. She was distressed by the report of individuals losing fingers and toes to frostbite, and moved by the welcome the town of Emerson, Man., was giving the asylum seekers.

Refugees are close to Rajanayagam’s heart. Every year she and her husband Gary Teare visit Central America where they work in schools near the Guatemalan border in which many of the children are refugees. She has also been involved or employed for years at various levels with street work, the public school system, and EAL programs in Saskatoon. 

“When I heard about these folks crossing into Canada on foot, I was glad they feel they’ll be safe in Canada regardless of politics,” Rajanayagam says. “They are human beings, and I thought it would be a lovely gesture to send them a welcome gift.”

What came to her mind was no-sew fleece blankets like the ones she’d helped make at Emmanuel Baptist Church before Christmas to be gifted to people in city shelters.

“More than anything, I wanted to do something for these people that would be a gesture of being remembered. Receiving a blanket would tell them they have not been forgotten.”

To see if her blanket-making idea was viable, Rajanayagam ran it past Klaus Gruber whom she knew to be well-connected with refugees and sponsorship. She also wanted to find a way to receive donations for which tax receipts could be issued.

Gruber immediately came on board, as did Nedra Gibault, a friend from Emmanuel Baptist Church, and Teresa Field, who heads up the Holy Family Catholic Cathedral Craft Guilt. Field and her group had participated in the no-sew blanket project at Christmas time.

The women paid a visit to Fabricland, found mountain fleece fabric significantly marked down, and cleaned off the shelf.

“We bought 75 metres of it,” says Field. “Two ladies there were thrilled about our project and spent two hours cutting the fleece into 1-1/2 metre lengths.”

What had started with three or four people quickly expanded and became a multi-faith initiative.

Sarah Donnelly, pastoral assistant and wife of Scott Pittendrigh, dean of St. John’s Anglican Cathedral, became involved and invited other faith communities to join and possibly host a blanket-making work bee. Six were held, hosted by Queen’s House Retreat & Renewal Centre, St. John’s Anglican Cathedral, Congregation Agudas Israel, Holy Covenant Evangelical Orthodox Church, Holy Family Catholic Cathedral, and the Ahmidayya Baitur Rahmat Mosque.

Despite record low temperatures and a blizzard, more than 100 people came out to make the no-sew blankets, including two Syrian families who came to Saskatoon last year. The mosque alone had a turn-out of 35 women. The goal of making 50 blankets was easily exceeded, and others were donated by St. Martin’s United Church and St. George’s Anglican Church.

The women of Holy Family Craft Guild sewed drawstring bags to package each blanket. Rajanayagam says most of the refugees will move several times before they find a permanent home, and having a bag for their blanket will make it easy to take the blanket with them.

Later this month, Gruber and his wife plan to transport the blankets to Winnipeg and deliver them to a friend, Tom Denton, who runs Hospitality House.

“Tom is closely involved with the refugee situation at Emerson,” Gruber says. “The Red Cross now has a presence at the border, and the refugees are being transported from Emerson to Winnipeg where they are sheltered at Welcome House and the Salvation Army. The people of Emerson are helping, and the blankets may go straight there.”

Field says she became involved with the project because she believes we all need to be Good Samaritans in our own way. “The Guild took this on as a Lenten project. It fits with our mandate of charity, kindness and helping others.”

Rev. Jakob Palm offered his church, Holy Covenant Evangelical Orthodox, for a bee. Palm says his reason for supporting the initiative was obedience. “This is a universal situation. The refugee crisis is causing much suffering, and I believe we must try to alleviate suffering in any way we can. In this season of Lent, our theme at Holy Covenant is kindness. Acts of kindness make people believe there is still something good in the world.

“I also believe that this is an issue that can’t be solved by any one community. People need to come together like this at the table.”

Palm especially likes the idea of offering blankets. “Blankets are universally symbolic of covering,” he says. “In some cultures they may be called a mantle or a cape, but universally they are a sense of protection, a sense of home.”

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Source: Saskatoon Star Phoenix / Darlene Polachic

Photo: Cecilia Rajanayagam and Teresa Field demonstrate how to tie fringe knots on the no-sew fleece blankets being gifted to refugees in Manitoba. Photo by Darlene Polachic