Sasha Feldstein

Religious Diversity in the Safe House: Ramadan

This Wednesday marks the beginning of Ramadan, the Islamic month of repentance, the most holy month in Muslim tradition. As many of Heshima Kenya’s participants observe Ramadan, we have been spending a lot of time preparing for how things will change with our schedules and programming. Through these discussions I have learned how difficult – and yet how important – it is to create a place of peace, safety, and respect for religious diversity, especially in Heshima Kenya’s Safe House. The girls who live in the Safe House come from a wide range of backgrounds. They are not only from different countries (such as Somalia, Ethiopia, DR Congo, and Rwanda) but from different religions, tribes, and families. On the other hand, they are all refugees and have very similar histories of violence and trauma. One always hopes that these girls can set aside their differences in recognition of their common pasts and current situations, yet in the face of practical concerns this is unfortunately not always the case.

For example, during the month of Ramadan, the girls who are observing must fast for a straight 13 hours throughout the day. They are able to eat but only after sundown and before dawn. Traditionally, the meal they eat after sundown is a feast of samosas, dates, juice, and rice. For all of the girls who live in the Safe House and mostly eat rice and beans, this is seen as a really special treat. So is it fair to only give these foods to the girls who observe Ramadan?

On the other hand, in a house where the girls are responsible for their own cooking, is it fair to the Muslim girls to have to cook samosas (since they are the only ones who know how to make them) for everyone, when they are the ones who have been fasting all day?

It may seem like a small and trivial matter, but this is a real issue that has been disputed and discussed over and over again by both the girls and the entire staff. If our goal is to create a place of peace, we can’t give something to one girl that we don’t provide for the entire group. We also can’t make divisions along religious lines. Therefore, we have to explain to the girls that while their religious observance and cultural customs are honored and valued, we also have to honor and value the community that we are trying to build at Heshima Kenya. It’s a fine balance that we are constantly trying to maintain.

Fatuma, the GEP coordinator at Heshima Kenya, explained to me that Ramadan is the time when you focus on being the best possible version of yourself. I hope that during Ramadan, despite our religious or cultural differences, we can all work towards being the best possible version of ourselves, to treat each other with respect and dignity.  True Heshima.

Report Back: The Maisha Collective's First Meeting

On July 7, 2010, the members of the Maisha Collective came together for our first official meeting. From now on every week members will be getting together to discuss all of the details of getting Maisha up and running. One of the biggest issues to come up at the meeting was childcare. Out of the five current members of the Maisha Collective, four have very small children that they have to care for while they are working all day on the scarves. Also, when the girls are dyeing the scarves the babies are not allowed to be anywhere nearby because the chemicals are toxic. So who will take care of them? Once they start generating income, they decided to all contribute a portion of their pay to go towards paying for childcare. Even the one member who does not have any children agreed to contribute. Maisha truly is a collective in which all members support each other for the greater good of the group.

Another question was budgeting: how much each member should be paid; how much should be reinvested into Maisha to purchase more materials and dye; how will the members take care of their daily needs and save for the future? Once again the girls all agreed that they should set aside a portion of their monthly income to save for things like school fees, rent, and an emergency fund.

The Maisha Collective is unique because its members are also participants in Heshima Kenya’s Girls Empowerment and case management programs. All of the girls agreed that some of their money should go back into Heshima Kenya’s programming so that they can contribute to this work, too.

Once again, I left the meeting feeling so much admiration for the members of the Maisha Collective. With the prospect of starting to earn real money, these girls are faced with tough decisions about how to lead their lives. But, they are rising to the challenge with grace, and putting their future, their group, and their children as a priority.

Maisha Collective at the Nairobi Massai Market

I am happy to announce that the Maisha Collective will now be selling their scarves at Nairobi’s Massai Market every Tuesday. The market is at Westgate Shopping Mall on their rooftop parking lot in Westlands. On Tuesday, tourists and other customers from all over Nairobi (and the world) came and saw our beautiful, handmade scarves, and by the end of the day we had sold a dozen. Not too bad for our first day!

For anyone who has been to a Massai Market before, you know that it can sometimes be a little bit hectic, with hundreds of vendors vying for your attention. Not wanting to be too pushy, we were a little apprehensive about approaching people in the morning. However, by the end of the day we had learned a lot about marketing and promoting our scarves. Our wonderful neighboring vendors taught us the art of bargaining and being personable with would-be customers. They even encourage people to buy our scarves, saying "Have you seen the scarves that our friends made? Not only are they beautiful but they're for a good cause".

As I looked at the scarves blowing in the wind along the walls behind us, the beautiful display of colors on the ground in front of us and the smiles on each of our faces. Here’s to many more successful days at the market to come!

The Maisha Collective: What We Hope For

I want to tell everyone a little bit about the Maisha Collective. Here at Heshima Kenya, some girls wanted an opportunity to have a concrete source of income, so they have come together to form a small business collective. Through the Maisha Collective, members make beautiful handmade tie & dye scarves that they are hoping to sell in the U.S. and Kenya. So far, the response has been great! The other day I interviewed Maisha members about what the Collective means to them and what their hopes are for Maisha. I think it illustrates how these scarves are helping Maisha members build their confidence, independence, and a sense of empowerment. Here is what they had to say:

“The money that I will save from selling the scarves will help me to go to school to learn science so that one day I can become a doctor and help the people from Kakuma Refugee Camp”

“I like Maisha because it is helping us change our lives for the best.  I have very big dreams. I’m dreaming that Maisha will help me rent my own house, survive on my own, and allow my son to go to the best school. One day, I would like Maisha to grow big and to be known all over the world, to be famous!”

“I really like making the scarves because its fun and I enjoy it. My favorite part is rolling the tassles and dyeing the scarves… Eventually I want to run my own business, to be strong enough to do something like Maisha on my own. I want to do this so that I can take care of my child. I hope he will grow up to be a strong boy; I want him to finish his schooling nicely, and I want him to grow up well.”

“I could make scarves for the rest of my life. I just really enjoy it. I see myself having my own store, selling my own scarves, doing things on my own.”

“I like Maisha and making scarves because it’s fun, I love sewing and I’m good at it. It gives me something to do everyday that makes me feel good. My sewing skills will also help me to make money one day. I want to be a businesswoman and run my own business of sewing, making shawls, and scarves.”

“I really want to teach others to do this and I especially want to help young and single mothers learn how to do this. They need this so that they can have a skill and support themselves.”

“My dream for Maisha is that one day will have our own shop, with many girls working in it, and the workers will be able to provide for themselves. I really want Maisha to have its own store. I love doing this and I’m going to continue to do it forever. My past, when I was giving birth to my first born, I didn’t even have food or water to give him. Now that I see he can eat food, he is safe, he has clothes, and he is loved by the other girls, it inspires me to continue to do this work. That’s the biggest reason why I decided to do this.”

I hope that from reading this we can all be inspired to dream big and to not be afraid to articulate those dreams. The Maisha Collective is just getting started, but I believe fully that one day it will become everything these girls want it to be, and more.

Bridging the Gap: A Rights Training with Ethiopian Women

Living in Westlands, Nairobi, my neighborhood is filled with expats and fancy malls. However, on June 24, 2010 I boarded my first matatu (a 14 passenger van that is the common form of public transportation around here) and met Anne, the SGBV Training Coordinator, to go to Kariobangi, a large slum about an hour away where many Ethiopian refugees currently reside. Once we arrived, I followed Anne through a short maze of small tin houses and shops, past men building wooden furniture and selling candies & phone cards. We entered a meeting hall with two windows and no lights, so we left the door open in order to see. There, we waited. Anne informed me that she had scheduled a Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) training for 8:30 am, which meant that the women in the community would not be getting there until around 9:30 am. This is because the women who would be joining us that morning have several children and several mouths to feed, with barely any means to provide for them. Even if they got up at dawn to do all of the household chores, clean the house, and find and prepare food for their children, it would be extremely difficult for them to all find a way to be at the same place at the same time.

Slowly, women started to trickle into the meeting hall until the room was packed with around thirty Oromo Ethiopian refugee women. They all shook my hand and said "Habari" (How are you?) but Anne explained to me that many of the women actually speak Oromo or Amharic, the national and native languages of Ethiopia, so Anne would be giving the training in Swahili and a few of the women would be translating for the rest of them.

Anne started the training by asking the women if they knew the meaning of Sexual and Gender Based Violence. At first it was difficult because there is no direct translation for "gender" in Oromo or Amharic, but once Anne explained it the answers came pouring out: rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence. Anne then went on to explain that there were several different types of violence that the women may not even think of as SGBV. For example, she asked the women if they had ever heard of marital rape. She informed them that when a husband forces his wife to have intercourse, even when she is feeling very sick, it could be considered a form of sexual violence. When the women first heard this they were a little taken aback, because they said that many people in their community consider it to be the wife’s duty to always say “yes” to her husband, no matter the circumstance. However, one woman talked about how every night she hears her neighbor crying because her husband forces himself upon her. As the conversation progressed, all of the women began to recognize that sexual violence comes in many different forms.

Anne asked the women what they do when they hear about, see, or experience such forms of violence. Most of the women shrugged their shoulders. Several participants said that they know they are supposed to go to the hospital to get tested and treated, but the hospital costs too much money and is too far away. Anne said she gets this response a lot. “Most people do not know that there are free medical services available and that hospitals do not charge for testing or treatment related to SGBV. They know they are supposed to go to a hospital but they do not know what kinds of help they can actually get.” Therefore, Anne handed out brochures in Swahili, Oromo, and Amharic with a list of all of the places they could go to along with the services that each place provides. This was the key to Anne’s training. When the women were asked about the most important thing they learned that day, virtually every person said it was where to go, what to do, and who to call in the case of SGBV.

Another thing they learned was the importance of not keeping quiet when they or another member of their community experiences SGBV. While it may be difficult for one woman to stand up against her husband or another man, the women who were meeting that morning could collectively protect each other by not letting any incidence of SGBV go unnoticed and by helping other members of their community get help. They would be the eyes, ears, and support for each other, not only to protect themselves but women in the future from ever becoming victims.

Empowering women to prevent themselves from SGBV is not as clear cut as knowing to speak up and seek help, however. One of the women brought up an important issue to all of them: the tension between having to provide for your family and needing to protect yourself from violence. She said a common place women have been threatened with SGBV is when they are looking for jobs. Often, getting a job means having to offer your body along with the work you had originally signed up to do. In addition, since many of the women do not speak fluent Swahili or English, they find it difficult to stand up for themselves against sexual exploitation in the workforce. Anne once again brought up the power of community. “Look outside,” she said, “you see the men selling candies and making chapatis on the corner? You could do something like that!” She said that she understood how easy it is to feel defeated and overburdened by just trying to survive, but she has seen women come together in the past and she knows it can happen with these women as well.

After the training, every woman stayed after to speak with Anne in private about their own personal experiences. I was shocked to hear from Anne that most of the women approached her because they had been victims of gender based violence themselves. Even though we had stayed for two hours longer than we were supposed to, Anne listened to each one patiently, gave referrals for counseling, and promised to follow up with the most difficult cases. On the bus ride back, I marveled at Anne’s patience and devotion to her work, but it wasn’t until I looked at the photos I had taken that morning that I noticed how her face lights up when she is giving her trainings. I think this is partly because she is so good at what she does, but mostly I think it is because she knows that these trainings are giving women necessary tools to protect themselves and their community from one of the most common – and most atrocious – forms of violence that both women and men, and particularly refugees, experience today. -- Sasha