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“We’re Going to be Okay”

Refugee girls find hope through education and collective creativity.

by Nicole Graham-Lusher, AJWS Volunteer Corps

Despite the early hour, the classrooms and offices of Heshima Kenya are already buzzing noisily with the laughter of friends, the fussing of hungry babies, the clattering of breakfast dishes and the rush to prepare for the day. Upon entering the compound, each girl is welcomed into the warm fray with hugs, kisses and inquiries into the quality of her night. Hands are held, tea is poured and everyone settles into the security and safety inside the walls. If you didn’t know these girls and the painful pasts that lurk behind this sanguine picture, you might think they were a group of typical carefree teenagers.

But their girlish laughter obscures heart-wrenching stories: The girls at this grassroots organization in Nairobi have fled from violence and unrest in countries like Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Sudan—places where rape is used as a weapon of war and where gender-based violence is endemic. Many escaped on foot as soldiers or rebels burned their villages. Some literally ran out of their countries, and continued to run until they reached Nairobi.

Most of the girls were trying to survive alone until they found Heshima Kenya, a community-based organization that became their refuge. It offers them group housing or shelter with host families, provides counseling for their psychological trauma and advocacy support for their resettlement cases with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It also offers an array of educational and vocational opportunities and the promise of a brighter future. In the shelter of these rooms, girls who have undergone unspeakable horrors make friends, teach each other the dances of their homelands, braid each other’s hair and laugh and giggle. In other words, they are—for the first time in their lives—safe to be teenagers.

When my husband and I decided to volunteer in Kenya with AJWS, I was presented with the opportunity to assist Heshima Kenya’s efforts in educating and empowering these refugee girls. With their problems so vast, I wondered what impact I—as an American educator—could make in their lives. I also felt hopelessly idealistic and quite naïve as I tried to explain to my parents why I was quitting my job to move half-way around the world for a community I could only feel might need my help. But as we continued to make plans for our departure, a set of credible voices in international development provided me with evidence that the type of work I was going to be doing could make a difference. Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl Wudunn’s book, Half the Sky, put into words everything I had been feeling in my heart. Their research confirmed that the foundation of any strategy to end the deprivation of women and girls in developing nations must be education.

Half the Sky echoes an emerging widespread belief in the international development community that educating girls and women could be the key to lifting communities—and maybe even whole nations—out of poverty. Girls with more schooling participate in greater numbers in the labor force, thereby earning more for their families and bolstering their contributions to society.1 In addition to increasing their economic earning power, educating women has been shown to have a direct effect on the health of their children. Indeed, research shows that for every additional year of schooling that a mother attains, the infant mortality rate declines by five to 10 percent.2 By providing educational opportunities to marginalized refugee girls, Heshima Kenya is working to ensure that this generation and the next will grow up healthier and better-educated.

It did not take long for me to experience the power of this work firsthand. Working with the brave women and girls of Heshima Kenya proved to me that knowledge has been the most effective antidote to the trauma of their pasts and uncertainty of their futures. If you ask any girl what she loves best about the organization, she will concur. These girls know that education is the ticket to a better life, a different life, a sustainable and independent life, a peaceful life.

One young woman quietly explained to me her desire to learn, saying: “Everyone in my family is gone. If I think about them I will get so sad I might die too. So I don’t think about them. Instead, I think about my English and my math homework.” In spite of this young woman’s tragedy, she told me, she had the strength and clarity of mind to recognize that an education is her surest path to stability and safety.

Heshima Kenya’s “Girls Empowerment Program”—whose curriculum I have helped revise—provides this route, through a condensed introduction to skills in English, math and the local Kiswahili language, which enables the girls to begin to quickly navigate Kenyan society. It also teaches valuable life skills including financial literacy, HIV/AIDS prevention, child care and building self-esteem. And in addition to helping girls pursue formal educational paths, Heshima Kenya also offers a seven-month tailoring course, which, for many of the girls, is a key to economic independence, opening doors to owning small businesses and joining local women’s artisan collectives.

One such group, the Maisha Collective, was founded and operated by Heshima Kenya girls themselves. The members make tie-dyed scarves that they sell at local markets and stores throughout Nairobi. I spend part of each week with these lively girls, teaching them business practices like inventory and quality control. They are so passionate and intense about the creative aspects of their work that sometimes slowing them down to think about production details is a challenge. As I was explaining such matters in a recent meeting, one of the teenagers rolled her eyes at me and said: “Nicole, I’ll hire someone to do the boring stuff when I have my own business.” Her easy confidence and big dreams simply made me smile.

All of the girls at Heshima Kenya have lofty goals like these. But while their visions for the future are ambitious, they don’t forget to mark the many small victories along the way. On a recent afternoon one of the girls joined me on a visit to one of the boutiques selling the collective’s products. As we stood admiring the display, I saw tears slowly run down her face. After several moments, she collected herself, turned to me and said: “I am very proud of the Maisha scarves. I know I will be okay now. My baby will be okay now. I want to tell the other Maisha girls that we are going to be okay.”

While Heshima Kenya is still a fledgling organization (it was founded in 2007) and is still in the process of developing its own body of evidence to prove the merit of its programs, I have learned that the evidence of its success lies in the girls’ stories. Each girl who comes through Heshima Kenya’s security gate walks in with a story of trauma and pain, but as she spends more and more time it its cocoon of support, she slowly re-writes her story from tragedy to hope. Multiplied tens of times over, this evolution will transform their community.

Soon I will have to hug the girls goodbye. While I will miss working with them every day, I will take comfort knowing that I was not the first volunteer to give my time to Heshima Kenya’s girls, nor will I be the last. More than anything else, this experience has taught me that an investment made in a girl is a step toward healing the world. Heshima Kenya makes this investment every day, working hard to ensure that these young girls are able to live with “heshima”—Swahili for respect, honor and dignity.

Nicole and her husband Ben are spending four months volunteering in Kenya as part of AJWS’s Volunteer Corps, and then traveling around the world. To follow their journey, check out their blog: www.grahamandlusher.com.


  1. Ruth Levine, Cynthia B. Lloyd et.al., “Girls Count: A Global Investment & Action Agenda,” The Center for Global Development 2009: pg 18
  2. Ibid, 19

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American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is an international development organization motivated by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice. AJWS is dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among the people of the developing world regardless of race, religion or nationality. Through grants to grassroots organizations, volunteer service, advocacy and education, AJWS fosters civil society, sustainable development and human rights for all people, while promoting the values and responsibilities of global citizenship within the Jewish community.

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