Chicago has welcomed more than 35,000 migrants since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began busing migrants to “sanctuary cities” as part of his border security initiative Operation Lone Star. Watching news coverage on the arrivals in August 2023, Margie Chan ’78 realized that the migrants, many of whom come from warmer climates, would be ill-equipped for the fast-approaching winter. A longtime knitter, Chan knew she could rally the crafting community to help keep Chicago’s migrant population warm. One month later, she launched the 500 Hats for Refugees initiative.
Chan thought hats were the perfect item to collect — they come together quickly, can be made in any size or color and, she says, “there’s bound to be a head that will fit a hat.” Chan tapped the crafting community for hat donations through local knitting groups, yarn shops and online communities. Before long, the hats started rolling in. “Every [horizontal] surface in my living room had a hat on it,” she says.
Chan partnered with public libraries to get the hats into the hands of migrants. The former children’s librarian has held “Hats & Hot Chocolate” events at Chicago Public Library’s Edgewater, Uptown and Northtown branches, inviting migrants to pick out a hat while sipping hot chocolate. She has also distributed hats at North Park University and Haugan Elementary School in the Albany Park neighborhood.
As a child of refugees, Chan feels a personal connection to the project. She was born shortly after her parents and older brothers migrated from China to Chicago under the Refugee Relief Act of 1953. “We got the education that our parents wanted for us,” Chan says. “This is my way of paying that forward.”
Chan cherishes connecting with hat recipients, often finding that their stories mirror those of her own family. “The toughest women in the world are refugee women,” she says. “They are traversing thousands of miles on the slim hope of getting a better life for their kids. So getting to hear the women’s stories and say, ‘Hats off to you, ladies’ [has been deeply impactful].”
In addition to her time as a librarian, Chan worked in administrative and development roles at Chicago nonprofits for nearly 30 years, including the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago and the Chicago Children’s Museum. Though she runs the 500 Hats for Refugees Initiative on her own, Chan feels lucky to receive so much community support. “My former executive director [at Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago] bought me the coffee pot that I use for the hot chocolate. My knitting buddies’ mother got me four cases of hot cups. Somebody that I take a workout class with gives me three hats every week,” Chan says.
Chan named the 500 Hats for Refugees Initiative after the Dr. Seuss book The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins — a callback to her days as a children’s librarian — feeling optimistic that she would reach the 500-hat mark. She’s since tripled that goal, collecting over 1,500 hats from not only Chicago but also California, Texas, Florida, Colorado and Hawaii.
Chan plans to continue the initiative as winter wears on and migrant buses continue to arrive. “I won't be able to put a hat on every head,” she says, “but I'm sure gonna try.”
If you would like to contribute hats or other supplies to 500 Hats for Refugees, please email email@example.com.