Local Crafting Group Knits Refugees, Immigrants Together

Therapy can take many forms. For the immigrant and refugee women of CEW, or Creatively Empowered Women, knitting and crocheting beautiful things among friends has become a source of comfort and pleasure in their lives.

And for the Bosnian refugees who survived a horrible war in their country, CEW has been transformative.

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Jay Shefsky shares their story.


Jay Shefsky: What does therapy look like?  For this group of immigrant and refugee women in Chicago, therapy looks like this. They are members of a weekly knitting and crocheting group at the Hamdard Center, which provides support for immigrants on the Far North Side.

Vera Bijdic: My name is Vera. I come from Bosnia. 

Shefsky: It's called CEW, or Creatively Empowered Women, and it's run by art therapists Savneet Talwar and Sophie Canadé.  

Bijdic: Me and Bahra, we started first and then so many ladies joined us. I'm happy because it's been almost three years that we've been together.

Shefsky: Most of the CEW women are refugees from Bosnia. There’s Emina, Hajrija and Bahra and Dzemila. Also Fikreta, who translates when needed and is a case worker here at Hamdard. There’s also Hannah Lee, from Korea. And often, women from Pakistan. The Bosnian Muslim women in this group all survived the war in the mid-‘90s that killed at least 100,000 and displaced millions. International courts have said that Bosnian Muslims were victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide during the three-year war.

From the left, Dzemila Besic, Hannah Lee and Emina KosutFrom the left, Dzemila Besic, Hannah Lee and Emina Kosut

Bijdic: Every lady here has a different story, very hard story. I was in Sarajevo for four years with my family. It was very bad. When I needed to cook there was no electricity, no water, no food or anything.

Shefsky: But they don't come to talk about the past. They're here to knit and crochet – a skill most Bosnian girls learn early. 

Bahra Puskar (through a translator): All the Bosnian ladies and the ladies from Europe, they are doing some kind of handcrafting. This is some kind of therapy for me right now because making this calms me down. 

Emina Kosut (through a translator): It helps me not to think about the past and about what we went through.

Bijdic: We come every week and we are so happy. For the two to three hours we are here, we are so happy.

Savneet Talwar, left, and Sophie CandadéSavneet Talwar, left, and Sophie Candadé

Shefsky: Art therapists say it's more than just a helpful distraction. 

Sophie Canadé: There are articles about the neuro-scientific benefits of using both hands in a repetitive motion the way you are when you are knitting or crocheting and how that affects the brain much the way that meditation does. 

Savneet Talwar: Somebody who's got anxiety, depression – this is something that really helps with affect regulation. 

Shefsky: The women also sell their work at craft fairs, hospital gift shops and holiday sales. They keep 70 percent of the sale price, and the rest buys new yarn.

Bijdic: It's not about the money. The money is not in the question because I'm happy when I see the people are interested in our pieces.

Shefsky: And yet, their work does sell: In 2015 they took in $6,400. But don't ask them to make duplicates of a popular item. 

  • Knitting and crocheting work by CEW

    Knitting and crocheting work by CEW

  • Knitting and crocheting work by CEW

    Knitting and crocheting work by CEW

  • Knitting and crocheting work by CEW

    Knitting and crocheting work by CEW

  • Knitting and crocheting work by CEW

    Knitting and crocheting work by CEW

  • Knitting and crocheting work by CEW

    Knitting and crocheting work by CEW

  • Knitting and crocheting work by CEW

    Knitting and crocheting work by CEW

Canadé: These women are artists. They don't want to make the same paintings five times in a row. They are going to make something and experiment and explore and everything is totally unique.

Shefsky: While the women don't usually share their worst war stories here, today some wanted to be heard.   

Puskar: I lost my entire family during to the war. My son was caught in the concentration camps.

Bijdic: Me, myself, I was watching my two students being killed in front of my eyes because they were waiting in the line for water. 

Hajrira Nedzirevic: When they started bombarding, we went to the basement. And one grenade hit our place, and everything was destroyed. My husband was wounded at the time. And I escaped to Montenegro. My husband died because of the heart attack … I cannot talk anymore.

Shefsky: Hanna Lee from Korea lightened the tone when she remembered starting here as a novice knitter.    

Hanna Lee: When I first came here, Hajrija greeted me so warmly and she was my first teacher. Now they are all my teachers. Even though we are all from different countries, different history, different backgrounds, our hearts are the same. I feel sad that because of the language barrier, I can't say what I want to say. But I want them to know that I love them and respect them and honor them. 

Shefsky: With all the pain and loss these women have faced, the act of creating beauty, and doing it among friends, gives a crystal clear picture of what therapy looks like. 

To learn more about the Hamdard Center, go here. You can find more about Creatively Empowered Women and the women who knit on their website. CEW is supported by grants from the Albert Pick Jr. Fund and Mammel Family Foundation.

Upcoming sales

CEW Design Studio is participating in the following upcoming fair trade markets:

9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5 at Our Savior's Church, 1234 N. Arlington Heights Road, Arlington Heights, 60004

9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3 and 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4 at 4th Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut St. in Chicago.

11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3 and noon-5 pm. Sunday, Dec. 4 at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, 756 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago.

Note: This segment originally aired on "Chicago Tonight" on May 5.

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Find more of Jay's stories about Chicago people and places right here.

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