woman in black clothing holding infant son wearing red shirt

A kite-shaped Canadian pin is helping refugees around the world

How one woman’s vision offers displaced people a livelihood—and hope for the future

On March 13, 2013, Ahmad and Muna were having breakfast with their four children in Homs, Syria when the gunshots that had become a routine accompaniment to family meals suddenly seemed closer than usual. A lot closer. Terrified, the family ran out into the street, fleeing for the Jordanian border and leaving their half-eaten meal of cheese and pickled eggplant behind on the breakfast table. “We didn’t even have time to get extra clothes for the children,” Muna says.

Syrian family with three sons and two daughters seated inside

Unfortunately, Muna and her family weren’t destined to be among the 50,000 Syrian refugees welcomed into Canada, sponsored by government agencies, social services and generous pockets of people in individual communities.

Instead, they joined the 67 million (and counting) who make up the world’s overwhelming population of displaced people. The family spent 11 days living in a tent in a refugee camp in Jordan and later learned that their home had been burned to the ground. They were relieved when a relative found them a room in a grubby, concrete building on the outskirts of Amman, a building crowded with families like theirs.

To reach Muna and Ahmad’s new “home,” you must pick your way up a narrow alley littered with onion peels, bits of cardboard and pools of dark, unidentifiable liquid. The stairs are crumbling, laundry hangs from the ceiling and, but for a frayed rug on the floor and a bench along the wall, the room is bare. “I miss my home and the smell of jasmine—there were flowers everywhere there,” Muna says.

Worst of all, she knows that as Syria’s troubles continue, it’s unlikely they’ll ever be able to return. Ahmad has shrapnel in his stomach and walks with a limp, so he’s unable to work. For now, the family relies on monthly cash assistance from the United Nations to pay their rent, but there isn’t a lot left over. Muna wishes she could find work herself—toys, clothing, even medicine are luxuries from their old life. “It’s not an easy time. There are things we can’t afford to get for our children. I say ‘no’ a lot, and that’s hard for a mother.”

Still, despite their circumstances, she is hopeful. Her education ended at grade three and so, every day, she sits with her children while they do their homework. “I want more for my children,” she says.

It’s families like Muna’s, who have lost everything and are in danger of being forgotten, that Torontonian Hedvig Alexander wants to help most. Supporting the families who could come to Canada is a great gesture, says the founder of Far and Wide Collective, but alone it’s not enough. “The number of people who came here represents less than one percent of global refugees. We need to remember the 99 percent of people who don’t get resettled—and we need to do more to help them.”

Alexander believes the answer is to think more creatively about long-term solutions, like reconnecting displaced people to the global economy instead of forcing them to rely on handouts. Last November, she launched the Pin Project, a Toronto-based income-generating initiative that is already making a difference in the lives of displaced people around the world. She partnered with Canadian jewellery designer Jenny Bird to design a brass pin—shaped like a kite as a universal symbol of hope, optimism and transcendence—that was presold on Kickstarter. All the proceeds are now funding local workshops for refugees, who have begun producing the pins in  Afghanistan, Turkey and Burkina Faso.

Hedvig Alexander standing with three men and a woman in a workshop

Simply by buying a pin (each one comes with a card signed by the person who made it), Canadians can help solve a problem that often feels unsolvable, Alexander says. The campaign has already raised more than $100,000 and the project was nominated for a CAFA Impact Award. “I hope we can be a catalyst for a new approach to supporting these vulnerable populations, not only with things like water and shelter, but also with education and employment opportunities,” she says.

Tara Hopkins, general manager of the Women’s Craft Collective, worked with a group of refugee women producing the kite pins in Istanbul, where they added their own twist with coloured enamel. Some of the women she works with never finished high school, some have university degrees and some were working professionally, but now they’re all in the same place—starting over.

“In North America, we started out 20 steps ahead of a lot of people on this planet. We lucked out, but many didn’t. And it means we have a greater responsibility to do something to improve their lives.”

So far, the women involved in the Pin Project in Istanbul have produced 100 intricately painted, vibrantly coloured pins. “They loved the process,” Hopkins says. “They immersed themselves in it. It was a time to feel good about themselves and to generate some income.” There are women who saw their sons shot by snipers, or whose husbands were kidnapped or killed. “Many have lost family members, as well as their homes, their jobs, their identities and their sense of self,” Hopkins says. “Projects like this give them a chance to see how they can live on. People need hope and dignity. If they don’t have hope, they can’t do anything to improve their circumstances.”

Farida, one of the women involved with the Pin Project, liked that the work made her feel part of a larger, international community. She fled from Aleppo with her three children and has been living as a refugee in Istanbul since 2015. “It was nice to be part of a larger project with people in similar situations in other countries,” she says. “Living as a refugee is difficult, but I still have hope that I will go back home. If I keep being patient and manage the current situation, I can achieve this.”

For Farida, being part of the Pin Project has provided sorely needed solidarity and support, as well as extra money. Her goal, she says, is to send her children to school. “This is why I am so eager to improve myself and my skills, to ensure a good future for my children.”

Woman's hands holding kite-shaped refugee pin to polishing wheel

Will the women produce more pins, and maybe tackle other, similar, projects? “Inshallah,” Hopkins says, in Arabic. God willing. “In North America, we started out 20 steps ahead of a lot of people on this planet. We lucked out, but many didn’t. And it means we have a greater responsibility to do something to improve their lives.”

Alexander says she wants the pin for refugees to become what the ribbon is for breast cancer survivors: A symbol that raises awareness and gets people involved in giving back.

“These small things can be catalysts for bigger change and it’s up to us as part of a global community to be more creative in our approach. If people like us can do this, then others can do it too, and maybe do it bigger.”

Back in Amman, Muna’s children all dream of becoming police officers one day. They say they want to help other people and to keep them safe. “Those children had light in their eyes and were optimistic about their futures,” Alexander says. “It proved to me just how important this is. My vision is to use the Pin Project, with its hopeful kite, to connect the goodwill of millions of people leading comfortable lives with this vast, anonymous population of people who often get forgotten. I know one little pin isn’t going to fix everything, but it’s time we started looking for new solutions to a problem that’s only getting bigger.”

To support the project or order a pin, visit the Pin Project page on Indiegogo.

The last names of the refugee families interviewed have been withheld to protect their identities at the request of the UNHCR.