Education and Empowerment for Refugee Girls

by Heshima Kenya

“Thanks to Heshima Kenya I now feel like I can be whatever I choose to be. When I first came to Heshima Kenya I didn’t know how to say “Good morning” because I could only speak French and my mother tongue. Heshima taught me how to speak English and how to work hard for my future.”

Cecilia is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo and came to Kenya in May 2014 alone because of the fighting in her country. She fled the Congo due to the war, where both her parents were killed by the militia and was separated from her only brother. The militia held her hostage for over a year where Cecilia was sexually assaulted and, as a result, got pregnant. Luckily another woman, who was also a hostage herself, helped Cecilia escape and together they fled to another village where Cecilia was hoping to reunite with her paternal uncle. Upon arrival, she found out that her uncle had also been killed and that his wife was living on her own. Cecilia lived with her aunt till she gave birth. The war broke out again in their village and Cecilia had to flee again, this time with her aunt. Cecilia had a very difficult relationship with her aunt and one day after they had a disagreement, her aunt left, taking Cecilia’s son with her. Cecilia was devastated but had no choice that when war started over a third time, Cecilia had to flee with a truck driver who brought her to Nairobi, Kenya. Once she was in Nairobi, Cecilia was able to find a Congolese man who took her to a woman who offered to host her for a while. The neighbors offered to host Cecilia for a short time after that. The neighbors took Cecilia to HIAS and then to UNHCR to register. At the UNHCR, Cecilia heard about Heshima Kenya through the other girls registering. Cecilia came to Heshima Kenya’s offices in October of 2014 and was enrolled into the Education and Safe House program.

Cecilia was enrolled into the Girls’ Empowerment Project where she continues to receive education. She is currently enrolled in the Level 3 Programming. She has registered to take the KCPE exams in November 2016. In 2015, she was enrolled into the vocational training, graduated, and joined the Maisha Collective in January 2016. She is able to earn her own income as part of the Maisha Collective, where she dyes and hand makes scarves. Through the stipend Cecilia earns from the Maisha Collective, she is able to support herself and even host other Heshima Kenya girls who are reintegrating back into the community from the Safe House program. Cecilia is saving up and planning on setting up her own small grocery business when she graduates from the collective in 2018.

Heshima Kenya took Cecilia to the Red Cross to help her locate her child, but the investigation is unfortunately still ongoing. To help her cope with the trauma and focus on empowering herself, Cecilia was enrolled into counseling sessions.With the support she received from Heshima Kenya, Cecilia still has hope of one day finding her child. Cecilia is very thankful for the support she has received and the friends she has made through Heshima Kenya.

“At Heshima Kenya I’ve learned to speak Kiswahili and English and also learned subjects I didn’t even know existed like social studies and science. I’m paying for my own rent and food and one day I know my child will come back to me and I’ll be proud to show her how far I have come”.

Neema fled from war in her home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012. Earlier that same year, she was separated from her parents when war came to her village; their whereabouts remain unknown. She was therefore living with her brother in another small village when one night militia broke into her home. Her brother and sister-in-law were beaten while she hid under the bed. Unsure if her brother and his wife were alive, she fled to a relative’s house, where they immediately fled the village. She was separated from her relatives at the Kenya border, so continued the remainder of the journey to Nairobi alone.  Once in Nairobi, she was able to find her brother again, but the violence had changed him. Neema’s life with her brother was not good; he began drinking, and his wife insisted that Neema stay home and care for the house for no pay, preventing her from attending school.

Neema had no resources to escape this environment; she did not speak the local language and could not communicate. She had very few skills for employment, so was forced to remain in the bleak conditions working as unpaid labor in her brother’s home. Neema finally found Heshima Kenyain 2014 after hearing of its programs during an awareness and outreach campaign designed in her native language. She came to live in the Safe House at 16 years old, and was immediately enrolled in the Girls’ Empowerment Project for basic education. She worked hard and learned quickly, picking up English and joining the vocational courses for tailoring and straight stitching class in 2015. She graduated and joined the Maisha Collective in January 2016.

Neema continues with her education and is in level 3; she has registered to sit for the KCPE exams in November 2016, which has been her dream since she enrolled into the programs. Neema has grown, gaining self-confidence and self- awareness through the life-skills classes. She was even able to host an intervention for her brother regarding his drinking, which led him to enroll in treatment and recovery programs. Through the stipend Neema earns in the Maisha collective, she is able to contribute to her brother’s household so he may focus on his healing. Neema is looking to the future, saving her money and planning on starting her own clothing business when she graduates from the collective in 2019.

“I am happy that I’ve been able to get my education back and have earned a skill from Heshima Kenya that is focused on my future where I will have a better life for my brother and myself!”

Neema at School
Neema at School
Neema at work
Neema at work


Fartun and her daughter at the Safe House
Fartun and her daughter at the Safe House

Fartun was born in the Dadaab refugee camp, a large refugee camp bordering Somalia and Kenya. Life in the refugee camps can be very challenging, including security risks and threats. Unfortunately, one day when Fartun was only 15 years old she was at a neighbor’s home, when an older male living there drugged and sexually assaulted her, resulting in pregnancy. Sexual assault causes much shame in many cultures, including Fartun’s, so after discovering what happened her family disowned her, taking her to the UNHCR for services. Knowing she was unsafe in the camp, without the protection of her family and her attacker still free, Fartun left the camp with a refugee woman traveling to Nairobi.

Once in Nairobi, Fartun was referred to Heshima Kenya’s Safe House, where she was provided with food, medication, transportation, counseling and prenatal care. Fartun also received counseling to help her cope with the trauma. Finally, she was enrolled in the Girls’ Empowerment Project, where she was able to continue her education. Once she gave birth to a healthy daughter, she was also able enroll in childcare courses to learn how to care for her baby. Fartun was beginning to heal, but was still very worried about her future as a young mother with no family or resources. Still, she worked very hard in school and to care for her baby.

Now, just 2 years later, Fartun is a bright young woman with ambitious dreams. She joined our income-generating program, the Maisha collective, enabling her to earn her own income to support herself and her daughter. She is now able to pay rent and financially support her daughter. While Fartun is working, her daughter is cared for in Heshima Kenya’s ECD (Early Childhood Center), within the GEP.

Fartun dreams of becoming a journalist one day. She loves watching and listening to the news and wishes to one day report events like the journalists she sees on television. Furthermore, she hopes to be able to provide a good life for her daughter and hopes that her daughter is able to have a good education.

Prior to joining Heshima Kenya, Fartun felt abandoned, neglected and hopeless. However, the care and support she found at Heshima Kenya helped her to grow and feel safe and secure. She felt safe enough to focus on her education, and care for her baby. This allowed her to learn tailoring skills and eventually begin to earn her own income, a dream that seemed impossible just a few short years ago. Fartun is very thankful for the support she has received and the friends she has made through Heshima Kenya.

 Fartun says “I am glad that Heshima Kenya cares for my child and we know that there is a place for us, a place of safety. Maisha is helping me take care of my baby and when she needs something, I’m able to do it for her as I can provide for her instead of having to ask it from somebody or somewhere else. I feel so grown up when I provide for my child.”

It is because of supporters like you that young women like Fartun are able to feel safe and secure, and are able to receive and education, thriving as young women with ambitious dreams. From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you for all you have done. 

Fartun at work at the Maisha Collective
Fartun at work at the Maisha Collective
Fartun and her daughter on their way to the GEP
Fartun and her daughter on their way to the GEP


Irene looks forward to exams next month!
Irene looks forward to exams next month!

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” Nelson Mandela.

Heshima Kenya strongly believes in the power of education, and continues to provide opportunities to many vulnerable refugees, like Irene. Irene is a young and energetic girl who is determined to fulfill her dreams of becoming a journalist, so she can fight for justice including equal treatment, fairness and peace for all. Being a journalist has been her dream and aspiration ever since she was young.

Just this past spring, at 16 years old, Irene fled from her country of Burundi due to political conflicts that resulted in the loss of her parents. She escaped the fighting and met another refugee in Rwanda who offered to take her to Nairobi, Kenya. After a long journey, Irene arrived at the UNHCR in Nairobi, where she was referred to Heshima Kenya. She was immediately given a safe place to live in our Safe House; she also received food, medication, transportation, counseling and medical services. This summer, Irene enrolled in our education services, where she began her basic literacy education. She plans to continue through the primary levels in order to pass the exams and enroll in high school; she plans to eventually attend college where she can study to become a journalist. Reflecting on her time at Heshima Kenya so far, Irene says, “I feel good about my education, I believe that I will move forward in my higher level of education.”

In a few short months, Irene has been able to advance in reading and writing in English, which was initially one of her biggest challenges. “My English has really improved ever since I joined Heshima Kenya, I have been able to read and understand the meanings of different words in English,” she says.

Today, Irene loves reading English storybooks and the Bible as part of her hobbies. She is now able to participate in class, compared to her first day at Heshima when she was still traumatized and afraid because of her past. She feels safe and happy; she attends school every day and has made many friends in school and at the safe house.

Irene will be sitting for her final examinations for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (K.C.P.E) in November 2016, passing this exam is required to enter High School. She says that Heshima Kenya has helped her with many things; “Heshima Kenya has offered me education, food, shelter, medication, transport and mostly a place I can call home because I find hope for my future through the support Heshima Kenya has offered me. Heshima has started the family tracing process for my two sisters who are still missing after the political fights and am hopeful they will be traced so that we can reunite,” she says.

“I feel like I have found a family in Heshima Kenya since I lost my parents, I have also found people who sympathize and empathize with me despite them being from different backgrounds and this makes me feel better and I have hope in life,” she says.


Thanks to supporters like you, girls like Irene are able to find hope and strive to acheive their dreams everyday. We thank you for your support. 

Irene in class
Irene in class
Zumba class at the GEP
Zumba class at the GEP


Chantal working at the Maisha Collective
Chantal working at the Maisha Collective

Chantal was enrolled in Heshima Kenya at 16 from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she experienced a series of tragic events after rebels took over her village. She witnessed the death of her parents and was separated from her siblings while fleeing. She located her cousin, but both girls were abducted by the rebels and held for 2 years. Both young women became pregnant as a result of abuse at the hands of the rebels, and finally managed to escape their capturers. They traveled to Kenya, where they found a Congolese woman to stay with for a few days while she helped each girl to register as a refugee. During the resettlement process, our partner organization referred both young women to our programs. Chantal was assessed by program staff and placed in our Safe House, and enrolled in the Girls’ Empowerment Project. Chantal was provided with access to medical care, and gave birth to a healthy baby boy two months after arriving at Heshima Kenya.

Chantal was very withdrawn and aggressive when she was initially enrolled into the programs. She was enrolled for counseling sessions and later she also received more sessions after giving birth, with a focus on acceptance for her child.

Chantal is now 19 years old and has graduated from the GEP’s basic education and vocational training classes. She then joined our income generation project, the Maisha Collective, and because of the income she earned, she was able to move out of the Safe House and rented a house with her cousin and their children. Her son, James is currently enrolled in our Early Childhood Development Center (ECD) and is doing very well.

Chantal has grown into a very confident and outgoing woman, serving as one of the leaders in the Maisha Collective. Chantal says, “I am looking towards being enrolled into college after fulfilling a dream of mine – finishing school. School and the Maisha Collective are teaching me about discipline and how to relate to people from different backgrounds. I’m gaining skills and earning money at the same time. I’m very happy with where I am right now.”

Chantal is now looking forward to pursuing her life in a new environment, as resettlement has been arranged for her with her child, cousin and nephew in the United States.

Chantal and her friends
Chantal and her friends
Chantal at graduation
Chantal at graduation



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Organization Information

Heshima Kenya

Location: Chicago, IL - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Alisa Roadcup
Executive Director
Chicago, IL United States
$61,740 raised of $95,000 goal
840 donations
$33,260 to go
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