Creating Pathways for Hope: The Success of our Community Leaders

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Refugee women in our Womens Ambassador Groups showing off their new enterprises.

Written by Stephen Mwangangi

We at Heshima Kenya believe that economic empowerment of women secures sustainable and lasting peace.  A great majority of urban refugee women in Nairobi live in acute poverty. They lack capital and spend most of their household budgets on basic necessities like food and rent. Those who do manage to establish businesses frequently lack technical skills or have access to local networks.

Turning Tribulations into Success
Mother and entrepreneur – Providence is proof that living as a refugee in an urban centre does not automatically mean an idle, helpless life. Providence is not a woman to sit idle. Days after she and her children fled their native Rwanda in late 2012, she has established herself as an astute business woman, amid many challenges, in her residence area of Muthama in the outskirts of Nairobi where she lives in a rented house with her five children.  “It is hard doing business in Nairobi. But I do what I can to survive.” She says.

Providence is among a group of 50 refugee women from DR Congo, Rwanda, and Somalia who have successfully undergone financial literacy training and received a micro-loan to purchase business materials to start or expand their own businesses. The program is an initiative of Heshima Kenya with support from the UN Women-Kenya.  The women are part of our Womens Ambassador Groups (WAG) that we've mobilized over the years to create safe pathways for Heshima girls reintegrating back into the community.  The women also share information about human rights and resources, and help to identify and refer vulnerable girls for support. Mico-loans are not only essential to their economic growth, but it also helps build the groups' social acumen to support others. 

“I am so happy for the training, support and grants that Heshima Kenya has given us. I have been able to buy business stock of Ksh. 10,000. Already most of the clothes I have bought as stock have been booked. I will sell all of them within a short time and go for more stock.” Providence said after receiving the grant.

Her sentiments were backed by Habibo Abukar Hassan, a member of Women Ambassador Group from Eastleigh in Nairobi who said, “Through Heshima Kenya, I have found myself home, I can socialize and meet other women who have been through the struggles I have gone through or even worse, but you guys helped me identify with them. I have been empowered on different angles and I am able to stand tall and defend myself and my people. Most important is what you are doing now; supporting us with this grant is showing us how much Heshima Kenya really cares about us and that you want to support us. We are grateful and thankful."

The women play the role of peace ambassadors in their communities and pillars of economic transformation.

The Journey
Providence recalls her painful journey from Rwanda to Kenya. She laments that she and her family were continuously haunted and harassed by government agents in Rwanda due to their political views. It became very unsafe and her husband fled to Norway where he sought asylum. With their life more threatened, she and her children had to leave the country—fast. So, taking with them only a few pieces of luggage and without letting anyone know where they were going, the family traveled to neighboring Uganda where they stayed for a few months.

 “I was very young when we left Rwanda. Our mother just told us to go. We did not know where we were going or why we were going. We just left Rwanda and I don’t know where our belongings/property went. When we came here (Kenya), I was enrolled in a nearby school. Moving from Rwanda to Kenya has affected my schooling very much. I should be completing A levels by now,” says her eldest son who is completing his primary school education in a nearby school. 

“I thought we’d be there briefly, until everything settled down,” Providence says.

But things didn’t settle down. The local community was not accommodating and began to pester them. They suspected that they were refugees from Rwanda. Three months later, and due to the risk of forceful repatriation back to their country, it was time to move.  The journey to Kenya was not smooth either. The border authorities were not going to allow them to cross. Therefore, they opted to use unofficial crossing points through the bushes where they further risked their lives. With the little money she had, she booked a bus ticket for herself and her children at a border town in Kenya. On their arrival to Nairobi, they were received by a friend of hers whom they had previously made contacts.

“The humiliation that we were subjected to every second of our life didn’t give me low self-esteem but it gave me the push to succeed,” she says of her determination with nothing but hard work and ambition, having a strong sense of values, and wanting to build for the next generation.

She started to engage in various small business activities including hawking mandazi and selling clothes and other household accessories in order to provide for her children. Heshima Kenya's outreach manager identified her through a workshop and invited her to participate in its Women Ambassador Group. “Since then, I have never looked back,” an enthusiastic Providence says.

Peace Ambassadors
Heshima Kenya’s economic empowerment program has equipped the refugee women like Providence and Habibo with the skills and support they need to enter safe and productive economic opportunities while participating in peace building efforts among refugee communities in Nairobi. Training modules in life skills, entrepreneurship, financial literacy and employability prepare the participants to either launch business enterprises or transition to wage employment. For many of the women who have faced discrimination, violence and diminished opportunities in Kenya’s urban slums, the confidence, social networks and mentorship they gain through the program are as invaluable as the business skills and the grants.

During the financial literacy training, the women were assisted to develop business proposals for businesses of their choice to either start or expand existing businesses. They were also provided with micro-loans and seed grants in form of business materials to launch and expand their businesses. The women purchased different business materials including vegetables, clothing, hairdressing accessories, sewing machines and household accessories among others. Half of the amount is repayable in installments. Heshima Kenya will continue to follow up on them and provide them with the necessary technical support, advice and guidance to make their businesses successful.

“Ahsanteee, Ahsante Heshima Kenya. Mimi leo niko na furaha mingi sana. Naona maisha yangu itakuwa mzuri sana na Mungu anaona hata kama ni refugee ametupatia chance, hajatuwacha na hii yote ni kwa sababu ya Heshima Kenya.” (Thank you. Thank You Heshima Kenya. I am very happy today. I can see that my life is going to be okay, God has seen that even if I am a refugee, I deserve a chance to be happy and all this thanks to Heshima Kenya), said Pascasie Mbilinde, WAG member from Kasarani, after receiving the grants.  While joyfully displaying her newly acquired sewing machine, Janine, a mother of one who lives with her family in a rented room in Kivuli which has been partitioned to serve as a shop at the front end says, “Thank you very much. I needed a sewing machine. The grant has enabled me to acquire a new future."