Toronto, Canada

Mes Amis: The Clothing Drive

Mes Amis Facebook Group

October 25, 2016

A call to action for refugee clothing launches a store, an online community and a social movement

clothingdriveTwenty-five thousand Syrian refugees were scheduled to arrive in a few short months. Was Toronto ready? For some community members, the reality of refugees arriving during Canada’s harsh winter months meant one thing: warm clothing and footwear.

When friends sponsoring a Syrian family came together to plan what could be done to help the new arrivals, Laura-Jean Bernhardson decided to take on a clothing drive. Simple enough. She put a call out on Facebook and could not have imagined what would happen next.

What started as a call for volunteer contributions of  clothing and footwear for Syrian refugees grew into an actual storefront and warehouse, rallying thousands of interested residents and volunteers across the city in the process. Today, founder Bernhardson calls the Mes Amis Clothing Drive  “a social movement” to welcome Syrian refugees and help them feel at home in the city.

How to engage the community?

The technology was easy. Slightly more than two-thirds of Canadians regularly use Facebook. A public Facebook group was created where people could get updates, share information and offer help and resources. This included basic information about donations and volunteering as well as updates on weekly donation needs; calls for volunteers; events for “Super Shopper” days; and being available to answer questions from community.

The Mes Amis Facebook group was an instant success, creating an engaging and accessible public platform and connection for people interested in helping. A private Facebook group was also used to organize and connect key volunteers.

From social media to social space

Once the formal clothing “shop” space was up and running, the Mes Amis Facebook group became the go-to place for volunteers to provide daily status updates, information about what was needed, when volunteers shifts needed filling and to stay connected to each other – a virtual and increasingly engaged community. The social media platform made it easy to keep important documents in the group’s shared file system, while encouraging playful interactions like using the group’s header photo in creative ways for the weekly schedule.

Using Facebook meant that interested residents and active volunteers didn’t need to stray from technology they were already using. Clothing Drive organizers made creative use of Facebook group features (such as the header image) to ensure that information was easy to find, share and act on.

It also meant that the idea and those who wanted to help expanded beyond the City of Toronto, into the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) with ease. Other technology tools such as Google docs, an online fundraising site, and a project  website were also used to generate awareness and engage with the community.

Technology wasn’t the point

Technology was used to facilitate the important work of getting Syrian refugees the clothes they needed, give interested community volunteers immediate opportunities to contribute and help raise public awareness of both the refugees’ needs and the incredible community spirit that was being exhibited.

Like many civic tech projects, technology wasn’t the point. The point was to find a solution to a problem. Can technology play a role, be helpful, or even make the difference in solving a specific problem? It did. But, like other civic tech projects, the technology is a side issue. What matters is providing solutions to the challenges faced by refugees integrating into a new home.

In the case of The Clothing Drive, technology was an important piece of how the Mes Amis project was initiated, implemented and, ultimately, met with success. The technology didn’t get in the way. It made things easier. Social media tools familiar to project participants were used to create, share, inform and serve. Mainstream media helped raise awareness of the project. Use of smart technology kept it going and growing.

Success is more than just numbers

Mes Amis’ clothing drive is responsible for providing over 3,000 Syrian refugees with clothes and a warm community welcome.

Success fosters innovation. As with any successful project, the Mes Amis organizers adapted the clothing drive model to meet emerging needs. For example, toys and personal hygiene items also were collected, and during Ramadan food baskets were organized and distributed to Muslim refugee families. The community organizing happened online, was practical, culturally responsive and widely applauded for bringing new and host communities together.

When government assisted refugees languished in local hotels while waiting for permanent housing, Mes Amis put out a call to cation. Their high-traffic Facebook page and other social media quickly brought together the volunteers needed to hire buses and bring  families to the shop to collect clothing and make community connections.

Mes Amis ran “pop up” clothing shops in hotels in Toronto as well as cities outside of the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), bringing clothes directly to where refugees were living and in need. An incredible amount of creativity and innovation went into figuring out how community members outside the formal settlement and integration system could help their new neighbours feel welcomed, included and supported. The sense of inclusion and welcome these families experienced far exceeds any tangible item of clothing they received. It was a ray of sunshine in an often alien and frustrating settlement experience.

Civic tech approach FTW!

The Mes Amis Clothing Drive illustrates how technology helps us learn what is possible and how technology can contribute to solutions. As we’ve seen with other approaches to supporting refugees, a tech development approach can work in human services. Technology helps build our capacity “to deliver quickly, respond to emerging requirements and adapt to evolving issues and changes in family conditions.

It’s an approach inherent in many civic tech projects: find out what’s needed, learn about the “end user”, come up with some ideas, implement, learn, adapt and modify, implement and continue the cycle until needs are met.  It’s an approach that clearly works in the fluid community engagement and outreach context of the refugee experience.

The Clothing Drive exceeded all Mes Amis group expectations, from Facebook group to the bricks and mortar clothing shop that provided additional support for many months. The physical shop is closed now. The need has been met. Some of the original project proponents have moved on to other things. However, the energy, enthusiasm and expertise has not been lost.

What started as a Facebook Clothing Drive is adapting to what organizers learned. It’s morphed into Mes Amis, an online platform that continues to bring Syrian refugees and interested community members together for further connection,shared  experiences and to serve as a  flashpoint for community action, whenever the need should arise.

Making it Work for You:

  • Go to where your audience already is, join them, engage them, and use the technology that’s already working for them.
  • How can social media and other tech solutions (ICT) further your work and community engagement?
  • Technology can become part of your solution, but it’s unlikely to be the solution. Focus on your audience: real-tech, not killer apps.
  • Learn from the technology sector's “agile” approach to IT development and how it can be adapted to community needs (you may know it as the popular education technique).

For this Good Idea contact:

Julie Mafouz
1682 Victoria Park Avenue.