Heshima means “respect.” This Swahili word, which also alludes to honor and dignity, is of central importance for Chicago-based nonprofit, RefuSHE (formerly Heshima Kenya). Ever since co-founders Anne Sweeney and Talyn Good saw the world’s most vulnerable refugees falling through the cracks of international agencies, they knew they wouldn’t look away from separated and orphaned girls, often pregnant or carrying infants in their arms. Victims of exploitation and abuse, some having suffered the horrific consequences of war, some having witnessed the loss of their families, and others having to live with the lingering effects of kidnapping or rape. Young women who had to flee extreme violence, terrorism or persecution. They all have one thing in common: They lost everything.
Girls like these, struggling to carry on with minimal support as they hope to live lives of dignity against impossible odds, are the reason RefuSHE was born, to offer an innovative solution within the global refugee crisis, or a one-of-a-kind model for protection, empowerment, and peace-building in Kenya and beyond, as Sweeney puts it. A hope for girls and young women between the ages of thirteen and twenty-three from around Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Burundi and Rwanda) to heal, empower and re-enter society.
“Our international headquarters are located in Chicago and our programs are based in Nairobi, Kenya,” says RefuSHE executive director, Alisa Roadcup, home to nearly 491,000 refugees from conflicts in neighboring countries in 2017, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). “There, refugee girls find safety, sisterhood and a path toward economic independence through our textile-making social enterprise. Our trauma-informed, holistic approach allows members of our artisan collective to learn, grow and become leaders in their own right,” says Roadcup, explaining that refugee girls receive a full spectrum of care and support, which includes safe shelter, legal and medical advocacy, case management, education, child care and a way to earn money.
“First, we provide safe shelter and a peaceful environment to enable refugee girls to recover from what they have seen and lived through,” she says. “Access to basic education within our programs, and establishing friendship with other girls fosters a sense of solidarity. Knowing girls from similar backgrounds, who have survived and thrived under RefuSHE’s supportive care, engenders hope in a bright future. Once trust is established, the path to healing is illuminated. The process of gathering up the shattered pieces of one’s life begins.” But they still have a long way to go. “Refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya live within informal economies, which means that they are not able to work legally, so learning entrepreneurial skills is critical,” says Roadcup. “The media often presents negative stereotypes of refugees as dependent or an economic burden on society. At RefuSHE, we challenge those narratives. Refugees are so much more than the labels to which they are assigned. They are savvy entrepreneurs, mothers and students, with hopes and dreams, just like you and me. What I want people to know is that the young women of the program are bold, bright and stepping into the spotlight as leaders within their own communities.”
Artisanship can be characterized as the foundation of African fashion, whether in the form of weaving cloth by hand, intricate needlework, or in this case, resist-dyeing, a traditional East African technique similar to tie-dye. There, traditional craft knowledge is passed down to generations even in contemporary contexts: In Ethiopia, women spin the yarn by hand and men weave—a specialized technique operated predominantly by male craftsmen. In Kenya, the Maasai tribes are known for handcrafting their beaded jewelry—colorful necklaces, bracelets and pendants—to maintain their pastoral lifestyle and in Ghana’s Akan ethnic group, they handcraft Kente, a type of silk and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips, now known around the world.
Drawing inspiration from traditional styles of clothing and creating new collections of attire that feature vibrant colors and elaborate patterns, the RefuSHE girls hand-dye scarves, each named after their designer. In the process, they build leadership and business skills. But artisanship has a dual purpose. “Emotional healing continues in our artisan collective, which enables young women to earn an income while benefiting from the therapeutic effects of artisan work,” says Roadcup. “Studies have shown that repetitive acts like knitting or sewing significantly reduce effects of trauma. These experiences can be difficult to express in words, so the act of tasseling scarves, and hand-dying fabrics instills pride and builds self-esteem. Earning an income allows our artisans to advocate for the best interests of themselves and their children..
Taking their efforts a step further, RefuSHE brings together sustainable, ethical fashion and philanthropy at The Annual Fashion Challenge, their signature event, which celebrated its tenth anniversary earlier this year. This “Project Runway”-inspired event features nine Chicago fashion designers competing to create a unique look incorporating fabric made by RefuSHE artisans. “This event is an opportunity for Chicagoans to declare that we stand with and for refugee girls,” says Roadcup, stressing the importance of having a global awareness. “Nearly sixty million people around the world were displaced from their homes because of war, conflict or persecution last year. Twenty-two million are refugees and over half of those are women and children,” she says. “In our vastly inter-connected world, we should strive to be well-informed global citizens, and to raise our children to be the same. Now, more than ever, is the time to be vocal and involved in standing alongside refugees.”
To support, donate or purchase a scarf, visit the RefuSHE website. Or Host a Scarf Social. Plan a party at your home, office, church, community center or school, and sell RefuSHE’s one-of-a-kind scarves to your community. One-hundred percent of the proceeds are reinvested into the program to help young refugee women become financially independent and care for themselves and their children. Join the RefuSHE Auxiliary Board and help organize happy hours and fundraisers to raise awareness about the global refugee crisis. Run for RefuSHE: On May 20, run for the rights of refugee girls at the Chicago Spring Half Marathon/10K. (firstname.lastname@example.org for details)
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