Development & Alumni Relations Office 

KNITSTANBUL: QUEEN'S RESEARCHES THE POWER OF SOCIAL ENTERPRISE IN TURKEY  Sunset sky over Istanbul with Knitstanbul logo in corner, showing word written around simplified globe (like a multicoloured ball of wool), with two knitting needles running through it

08 June 2021

As part of a British Academy funded research project entitled Counting our Losses focusing on social entrepreneurship amongst Syrian refugees, Queen’s researchers have established a number of strong links with different refugee social enterprises in Turkey.

Turkey is the largest receiver of Syrian refugees in Europe and to date almost 4 million people who have fled Syria are living in the country, the majority in major urban centres. Syrians living in Turkey, however, face huge challenges in terms of access to the labour market. Large numbers remain unemployed or underemployed, and many continue to be major targets for exploitative, unscrupulous employers.

The Queen’s research looks at gender perspectives and in how women, children and men are each drawn into economic activities of social enterprise. 

In an interview by Maurice Macartney for the University’s Social Charter podcast series, The Charter (Episode 4, Season 1), in which they discuss their anthropological research, Dr Fiona Murphy and Dr Evi Chatzipanagiotidou talked about how social enterprises are being used to construct sustainable livelihoods. One such initiative – a crafting business called Knitstanbul – which began in 2015, focuses on issues of loss and displacement and the politics of labour for refugees in Istanbul.

Dr Evi Chatzipanagiotidou, an Associate Fellow of the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics (HAPP), said:

“Social enterprises offer solutions for refugees in order to be able to construct sustainable livelihoods outside the broader labour market.

“In this particular project we focused very much on the social activist, grassroots and of the continuum of social entrepreneurship, so we are focusing very much on refugee-led social enterprises.

“These are the main types of social enterprises that we’ve been able to do closer fieldwork with, but also are the social enterprises that give us a much more bottom-up understanding of what’s happening with social enterprises in Turkey.”    

Dr Fiona Murphy, who was a Fellow in the University’s Mitchell Institute for four years before joining the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s, explained what Knitstanbul is all about:

“While Knitstanbul is a social enterprise it’s also very much a story of loss and recovery and rebuilding, and of reconnecting, in an attempt to create a more sustainable livelihood under the spectre of the Syrian conflict and issues of rightlessness more broadly in Turkey.

“Primarily, the knitters produce baby knitwear – beautiful delicate colourful baby grows, pinafores, jumpers and they sell these.

“The consumer of these goods is not just buying a baby grow or a hat but very much a product that’s infused with the stories of the knitters, the story of conflict, survival and refuge.”  

Video podcast image showing contributors and Queen's Lanyon Building

Queen’s researchers identified the opportunity to enhance the engagement aspect of research and drive long-term impact. Knitstanbul knitters work closely with the University researchers in a reciprocal and ethical fashion to help them implement a collaborative marketplace to enable all the Syrian knitters who have worked with Knitstanbul in the past – and others who might like to join – to sell on a global platform from wherever they now live.

A common feature of attempting to establish refugee led social enterprises (particularly in Turkey) is that many participants eventually move to other European or North American countries, and so the social enterprise has to find new recruits in order to make the business sustainable.

This has many challenges, and so the development of a global marketplace in an online capacity would better facilitate the growing networks of Syrian refugee women involved in this type of social enterprise.

The Queen’s research aims to understand the gender, ethnic and class elements of the refugee labour markets and offer insights with long-term scholarly and policy impact potential.

To date, HAPP researchers have documented this mainly in a scholarly fashion through the British Academy grant, with one opportunity to carry out an engagement and impact event through conducting some social entrepreneurship training in Istanbul with Syrian women from Knitstanbul.

Given the moral, ethical and academic need to extend work with refugees into real world spaces of engagement and impact, they feel that by working in collaboration with Syrian refugees in the development of their social enterprise that research will be able to make significant changes to this particular group of women’s everyday lives.

This could then become a blueprint for how refugee-led social enterprises might develop and as such, would have important labour policy and integration outcomes.

It would also enhance capacity building for other refugee led social enterprises who could utilise this model of extended networks and marketplace to build more sustainable enterprises and thus, begin to scale.

Dr Chatzipanagiotidou, however, sounds a note caution.

“As much as we want to celebrate these sort of projects, what our research also shows is that social entrepreneurship projects like Knitstanbul cannot be sustainable if they are not done within a broader context of refugee support, of support infrastructure, and a system of social justice.”

Queen's Social Charter, which was launched in 2017, highlights the significant contribution to, and the positive impact made on society by University staff and students. To download or listen to the latest podcast (or to catch up with the 'Knitstanbul and Social Enterprise' episode which also includes an interview with Dr Brendan Murtagh on social enterprises in Belfast and Spain), go to

For general enquiries about this story, or to submit graduate news items, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office, Queen's University Belfast.

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