The Girl’s Empowerment Project tells a diverse story of poverty, war, hope and peace. These girls and young women make their way into the classroom with incredible courage. Returning to school at 16 or 19 years old, many for the first time, without their families to motivate them while also carrying the exceedingly heavy burden of trauma, insecurity, statelessness, and fear, is extremely challenging. Coupled with this, many were sexually assaulted and are new mothers.
Many participants struggle with a myriad of hardships and learning challenges. Some girls were pulled out of primary school because of war, poverty, or gender discrimination; others never attended school. With such a gap in their education, these girls battle with their confidence and motivation on a daily basis. Some live with host families that don’t value education for girls and women; others have peers in the community who relay that if they commit to their education in Nairobi, they will stay refugees forever.
After a day, some weeks, or months at Heshima, most of these girls recognize their new community as the most stable and supportive influence in their lives. What makes our Girl’s Empowerment Project especially unique is that its’ designed to identify and respond to these challenges with sensitivity, flexibility, and understanding – core requirements for empowerment.
Zahra, a GEP participant and 17 year old refugee from Somalia said, “Life in Somalia was so hard for a girl because of education. They believed that you get married and have husbands, you don’t go to school. I believe I am a leader because I don’t have to be old to have my voice heard. It all depends on how much I believe and use my brain.”
Much of Heshima Kenya’s success and progress is due to the intensive and specialized support we provide to every girl we assist. Our progress throughout 2009 points to the 105 refugee children and young women supported in our programs: 11 had infants that accompanied them on their journey to Kenya; 9 were enrolled in formal schools; 8 were united with their families outside Kenya; 5 gave birth to healthy babies; and 18 enrolled in our vocational program.
During this past quarter, 10 girls, 1 teacher and the Girl’s Empowerment Project Youth Coordinator voluntarily underwent HIV testing. The process encouraged other participants to be tested and be informed of their status, and in response to this interest, another testing session will be planned in the near future. To build their critical thinking skills, girls also continued to develop their newsletter, Midnimo (Somali for unity). With the support of a newspaper journalist invited to speak to the girls about reporting skills, participants wrote articles about maternal health and how it has impacted their communities. They are currently preparing articles about w omens' leadership for the next edition and will be interviewing leaders within their communities. As a needed break during the week, participants are also playing football and volleyball in a nearby arboretum every Wednesday morning. To test their skills, they played a volleyball match against women of the University of Nairobi’s volleyball team. Participants also had an outing at the Kenyan National Museum.
We also recently launched the Maisha Collective as the final transitional component of the Girl’s Empowerment Project. The Collective will act as an economic springboard for graduates of our tailoring program where they will form a business collective to produce and sell a collection of tie and dye scarves. Participants will apply for positions and be accepted into the Collective by a committee of ‘employees’ and a project leader; they will learn to save their earnings and grow their skills as they transition into self-sufficiency. All profits are returned as wages to empower their success. Visit heshimakenya.org in early summer to learn how to support the project.
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As we continue to build our Girl's Empowerment Project, we like share our impact through the eyes of our volunteers. Joe Steele has been passionately working with Heshima Kenya for the past four months:
I had been in Nairobi for 85 minutes when Amina laid the groundwork for what has been a humbling, inspiring lesson in strength and perseverance. I’m a NYC public school teacher come international non-profit volunteer searching for an understanding of the issues facing our world. I found it in Amina, an Ethiopian refugee, who participates in Heshima Kenya's Girl's Empowerment Project.
Amina's story and struggle—flight, abandonment, exploitation, violence—is one that the HK staff have taken on with incredible passion. At HK, a safe house provides the security, structure and consistency that allows each girl to focus on their future, an education program that gives them the tools to define and defend their rights and pursuits and a tailoring and dying course that harnesses the unquestionable skill, drive and dedication that each girl possesses.
But Amina is relentlessly hard on herself for her past and present struggles. She carries the burden of those experiences and the responsibilities of raising two young children in every classroom lesson, every trip to the UNHCR and each beautiful scarf she labors to create. I began to understand in my first few hours here in Kenya the entrenching psychological effects that an unequal and indifferent social system creates—crying, stupid, useless—but also witnessed firsthand efforts to heal those wounds. Each day Amina and the other girls are given the tools they need to control their futures, even if they can’t control their pasts. Each day they help a group of our society’s most vulnerable girls wake up in a safe place, learn skills that demand both respect and recognition and show them that their dreams have value.
Kara Wevers is a student who traveled throughout Africa and visited a number of GlobalGiving projects. On March 18th she visited "A Sanctuary for Empowering Refugee Girls" in Kenya. When asked what she would tell her friends about this project, she said: "Incredible: You need to see this!"
Meeting with Phoebe and Osop, two of the staff members at Heshima Kenya, was one of the highlights of my trip to Kenya. These two women were so full of life, commitment, transparency, and love that I was tempted to stay and work with them! Their passion to see healing, growth and maturity for adolescent refugee girls was contagious. They have big dreams for the future of these young women.
I was also able to watch some of their program participants in action, as they were taking language classes. I spoke with a few of these girls, who raved about the presence of Heshima in their lives. One even said that Heshima had saved her life and given her the chance to dream again. I am not exaggerating when I say that Heshima and its committed staff are rescuing hardened and neglected refugee girls from the streets and giving them the chance to have a new and better life.
We are so grateful for your support in helping Heshima Kenya win Global Giving’s Womenx2 Challenge! Because of your efforts, we also won the $5,000 prize for generating the highest number of donors!
We are proud to announce Heshima Kenya's first graduates from the Children's Empowerment Project's vocational training programs! The girls completed a certificate course in either cooking or basic tailoring. Dahabo, one graduate who learned tie-and-die, a popular fabric worn by Somali women said, "It is knowledge I will have for a lifetime. Discovering my creative talent means a lot to me; my self-confidence has grown and I believe in myself more now…My knowledge will take me far because people will come to me and I will make them clothes and earn money."
In the coming month, Heshima Kenya will also establish an in-house tailoring program. Dahabo will assistant teach the course.
We have also been busy expanding our curriculum. One of the goals of the Children's Empowerment Project is to inspire a renewed sense of purpose for our graduates with the hope that they will share their new and growing knowledge with their peers. To foster this confidence and skill development, we have begun forming small girl groups. We currently established groups in art, poetry, and drama and plan to eventually go into the community to initiate social change projects.
Other life-skills speakers and activities over the past months include inviting an HIV positive activist speak to the girls about living with HIV, working with I’m Worth Defending, a women’s advocacy group based in Nairobi, to lead a series of discussions on rape as well as demonstrating self-defense maneuvers, and taking a field trip to Kitengela Glass, a stained glass studio situated in Nairobi’s National Park, to inspire creative ideas for upcoming art projects. Heshima Kenya is also leading the formation of a girl’s volleyball league with other girl based organization in Nairobi.
Thank you again for your support and helping Heshima Kenya create a safe space where girls can heal and find a sense of common ground. We look forward to sharing more stories with you!
Anne and Talyn
As conflict and famine spreads throughout Somalia and refugees continue to flee human rights abuses in Ethiopia and Eritrea, unaccompanied refugee children, especially adolescent girls, are uncertain when or if they will ever return home. Instead of falling deeper into the cracks of insecurity and invisibility, Heshima Kenya recognizes that these particular girls are in desperate need of mentorship, education and skill development opportunities that will help them achieve economic independence while in Nairobi.
Since January 2008, 30 girls have been enrolled in our Children’s Empowerment Project, and 8 girls have participated in vocational skills training courses. Girls that have never attended school are learning to read and write, and for the first time in their lives, believe they can lead real change within their communities.
Part of the Children’s Empowerment Project’s life skills discussion is centered on human rights and community leadership. Guest speakers from community organizations and advocacy groups talk about their work, how they have become active community leaders and how they have overcome challenges—including living with AIDS, growing up on Nairobi streets, and dealing with discrimination as a minority in Kenya.
At our most recent session we had a dynamic discussion about the US elections and grassroots involvement in the political process. The girls began to connect how people take risks for something they are committed to and their own ability to affect change. They had many suggestions for President-Elect Obama, particularly on how he can improve the lives of refugees. The girls recognized how valuable their advocacy can be and their responsibility to educate others. This led to a spirited discussion about female leadership, particularly in Somalia.
Thank you so much for your support and helping to provide a voice to these girls. Please share your comments with us!
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