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Water Buffalo hat usher in a new beginning for new Buffalonians

Water Buffalo Club 716 provides income and inspiration for immigrants and refugee women through Stitch Buffalo.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Bills and the faithful have been through a lot this season, positive and negative. It all culminates this weekend at Highmark Stadium for the regular season finale. As we watch, there is a good chance you will see a fashion statement that has become pretty familiar, the unmistakable hats of the Water Buffalo Club 716.

It turns out, those hats not only represent Bills Mafia, they also represent a fresh start for some new Western New Yorkers. Club founder Therese Forton-Barnes did not expect the club and signature chapeaus to take off like they have "I didn't imagine it." She and a high school friend created the hats as an homage to Fred Flintstone and to stand out during the Bills playoff game in 2021. 

"We started with just the blue hat, and now we have red, white and blue. There are special horns you can order, different sizes now, so it's really fascinating."

Back then, they were simply ordering the hats from an out-of-town distributer. Now, with the membership numbers rising and the club getting more attention, she has enlisted local talents, of Stitch Buffalo. The Niagara Street Textile Art Center is committed to empowering immigrant and refugee women, and giving them a way to make a living through their own creativity. 

"It's so rewarding coming here, helping them and they're helping me and getting them involved in the community," Forton-Barnes said.

These are the women behind the new generation of deluxe water buffalo hats. Munawara Sultana, who moved here from Pakistan in 2021. Palwasha Basir who arrived in Buffalo from Afghanistan in 2019, and Hkawng Lung, who came here from Burma and earned her first paycheck ever from Stitch Buffalo at the age of 72. They're happy to be working and happy to have this opportunity to really embrace something that is such a big part of their new home.  

Basir says she didn't know much about football before this. "And now my family, all are fans."

A fandom that initially came as a bit of a surprise to Sultana.

"The traffic was crazy, I asked her (friend) what's happening, where are we all these people going in the middle of the storm, it's crazy traffic on a Sunday? She said, 'Oh, we have a football game.' I said, 'Why don't you play in July?'"

Once she learned that it was American football and not soccer she started to understand a bit. When she began making these hats, that's when she really embraced Bills Mafia.

Stitch Buffalo founder Dawne Hoeg says these hats represent more than just the Water Buffalo Club, for these women, they represent a new beginning, and a path into the heart of Western New York. 

"Hopefully for us, this will be a fun journey to take, not only for the work, but for the integration into the Bills scene and for these women to learn about that part of the community that exists here in the city is very exciting,"  Hoeg said.

You can learn more about the women behind the hats and how to purchase them on the Water Buffalo Club website. Proceeds from the hat sales benefit these new Buffalonians, Stitch Buffalo and the Bison exhibit at the Buffalo Zoo.

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