Crochet is helping to create a community in exile for Ukrainian refugees.
Stitch by stitch, the nonprofit AMOAMI teddy bear project is giving dozens of women in Spain, France and Switzerland a sense of purpose and connection ― plus a source of income ― amid Russia’s invasion of their homeland.
“We left our sons, husbands, friends, and family back in Ukraine and we are constantly in despair to hear the latest news, fearing that our home may have been bombed or our son or husband injured or worse,” said 90-year-old Tamara Sharhunand, a Mariupol native who now lives near Valencia, Spain, with granddaughter Yuliia Burlaka.
“At least while we crochet, we don’t think about it,” Sharhunand said. “It helps us evade very negative thoughts. We have to be counting the stitches and focused.”
The AMOAMI name stems from the translations of love (amour, amor, amore in French, Spanish and Italian) and friendship (amie, amigo, amico) and the Japanese technique of amigurumi.
It was the brainchild of Paris-based Spaniard Rafael J. Alcaide. Struck by seeing hundreds of Ukrainian women and children arriving at Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport in the early weeks of the war in March 2022, he said he decided to create a sustainable, social enterprise to help the women, many of whom didn’t speak Spanish and would therefore struggle to find jobs.
The idea was this: The refugees would crochet the bears, based on traditional Ukrainian embroidery, from a pattern created by Alcaide’s friend Rita Ruiz. Each bear would be sold with a personalized message from its maker as a reminder of Russia’s invasion, which has now been ongoing for more than 500 days.
The creator of the bear would receive around half of its sale price, and crucially get the chance to connect with compatriots also forced from their homes. The remainder of the money would be reinvested in expanding the project.
The idea gained popularity on Telegram channels and Facebook groups refugees had set up to communicate amid their hasty evacuation. Alcaide also spread the word at Ukrainian supermarkets, churches and associations in Spain that were collecting food and clothes for the refugees.
After 50 people showed up to the burgeoning group’s first presentation in a Madrid coffee shop, the project started holding crochet workshops and sharing videos online of how to create the bears.
In little more than a year, the project has expanded across Spain and Europe, and now boasts more than 60 members.
To date, some 1,600 bears have been sold and donated worldwide.
One bear celebrated Pride Month, and more special editions are planned.
The project remains financed “exclusively through the sales of our bears and the workshops we provide to organizations or clients who want to learn how to crochet,” said AMOAMI’s business development manager Daryna Nilova, who moved with her mother from Ukraine to Madrid at the outbreak of the war.
With the invasion ongoing, the project remains as important as ever, she said.
“AMOAMI has become a symbol of resistance and hope for the community of refugees. Often we feel frustrated not being able to help directly as we are far away from home,” Nilova said. “Crocheting and being part of AMOAMI gives us back self-esteem and courage to defend Ukraine from overseas.”