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"Afghans for Afghans" spreads warmth and knowledge

Lauren Pitts

Posted: 10/21/05

In a cozy corner of campus, six women sit around tables and work on their knitting while exchanging conversation. Their discussions range from government policies, to important world issues, to their most recent reads. Half a world away, as the temperature drops and the winter weather draws nearer, the impoverished women of Afghanistan have different concerns: survival for themselves and their families.

In the wake of the war that has left their country in shambles, many Afghan people worry about how they are going to keep warm this winter, as Afghanistan is known for its dry and freezing temperatures, especially in the mountainous areas of the country.

Luckily, they aren't the only ones aware of the quandary they face each winter, and many Americans and Canadians have joined in their battle with the elements, including many students from UNH and women from the Durham community.

Their knitting projects vary in size, shape and color. One scarf hangs loosely from its needles onto a woman's lap, in tight, precise stitches of lavender and deep green. One is a cream-colored blanket, thrown in a massive heap on a table, while two small crochet needles work busily on a bottom corner. One is a simple, bright pink square, and though the project doesn't look like much now, soon it will be assembled with other squares of knitting into a large, quilt-like afghan.

In just a few months time, all of these projects will join thousands of others at The American Friends Service Committee in San Francisco, Calif., and begin their journey to the people of Afghanistan.

The project, "afghans for Afghans," was started by Ann Rubin in December of 2001, and has sent around 30,000 articles to Afghanistan in the past four years. It was brought to the UNH campus with the help of Carly Hellen, Katie Carten and Sylvia Foster, three women from the community. These women are joined weekly by ten to twelve students, as well as four to six other women from the Durham community.

The Waysmeet Center at the United Campus Ministry on Mill Road serves as their headquarters, and on Monday nights from 6:30 - 8 p.m., they congregate to work on their individual and group knitting projects.

The community helps to alleviate some of the costs of supplies, explains Hellen.

"We let people and churches know about our group and ask for yarn and needles," she said. "And, life is good. I had an "afghans for Afghans" display last spring at a Peace Conference at the high school and a woman gave me bags of wool which she had from her own sheep."

Hellen, who graduated from UNH in 1957, has spent her life caring for people with dementia, in particular, Alzheimer's disease, writing, and traveling throughout the country and internationally, teaching and speaking about her life's work. She, with help from other community women, supplies the new students with needles and yarn, and also works on projects herself.

"The real work comes with sewing together the many squares the students knit or crochet," says Hellen. "The student-knitted squares made into afghans are the finest items we have sent because they are made with such love."

Among the other projects are sweaters, vests, caps and mittens made from wool and wool blends, cotton and other durable, synthetic materials.

Hellen and the two other founders, Carten and Foster, are all members of the President's Commission on the Status of Women program called All Ages Women Wisdom Exchange (AAWWE).

Foster, who also teaches women's studies at the University, expressed her concern for the "bruised" state of the world. She feels optimistic when she attends the meetings, because "when I am with the students, it makes me feel like there's hope," she said.

Feedback has been received from the Afghan people in the form of a letter to the founder, Ann Rubin. Shamim Jawad, the wife of the Afghanistan Ambassador to the United States, wrote to Rubin of her thanks for her efforts.

"We are particularly impressed by the solidarity forged between North Americans and Afghans through the tradition of knitting," she wrote on Sept. 21, 2004. The letter continues, "We are deeply grateful to the volunteers and strongly support 'afghans for Afghans' knitting and crocheting project which promotes cross-cultural understanding and cooperation."

A truly unique atmosphere is created for the hour and a half that the "afghans for Afghans" project assembles. Students and community members of all ages come together for an incredible cause, and in the process they realize that, no matter what age, ethnicity or social class, we can all help and learn from one another.

Freshmen Justine Lariviere glanced up between stitches at their last meeting. "I really miss these people on weeks that we don't meet, and I look forward to Mondays," she said. "Even if it's something small, it's nice to know that I am doing something."

To learn more about "afghans for Afghans," visit their Web site at www.afghansfor Afghans.org.

© Copyright 2006 The New Hampshire