Megan Sidhu

Inspiring Peace and Social Change: Miriam's Story

Miriam came to Heshima Kenya in 2009 after living with abusive host families in the slums of Kawangware, located just outside of Nairobi. With these families, Miriam was subject to abuse and was forced to work long hours to complete all of the household chores, including caring for each families’ many children. She experienced extreme poverty – living with 8 other family members in a single room partitioned only with curtains. After rape attempts by one of the sons and the father of her second host family, Miriam finally received help from a neighbor to reach the UNHCR, where she was placed with Heshima Kenya.

“Heshima Kenya has changed my life a lot!” Miriam exclaims, stating she is finally able to access education, has obtained shelter and food, and feels safe. She stresses that while living in the community she was constantly fearful, but is finally free of attacks – like rape and other assault. She feels taken care of as she would if she were living with her own parents. “The other HK girls are like my sisters,” she says, “We all (give each other advice) and console (each other) when we are stressed or have a problem. This is the only family I have and know.” Miriam also demonstrates how the environment and services at Heshima inspire peace, empowering the young women to be catalysts for social change. “The girls are very helpful and we all love each other. We now can live together in harmony in spite of our different ethnic groups and countries. We can live together as sisters who share a common goal.”

Miriam is currently working very hard in school, where her favorite subjects are Kiswahili, Science, Social Studies, English and Mathematics. “I want to excel at it all,” Miriam declares. Additionally, Miriam looks to the other young women who have exited the Safe House as role models because they are able to live responsibly on their own – paying their rent and bills, and budgeting responsibly. She is grateful for the education, language, and income generating skills she is acquiring to help her achieve these goals. Down the road, Miriam aims to become a journalist but is also inspired by the work of Anne Sweeney and Talyn Good, the founders of Heshima Kenya. She, too, would like to assist orphans from war torn countries “I would encourage other Heshima Kenya girls to live with peace, love, and understanding.”

New Maisha Collective Scarves Now Available!

We just received our latest shipment of scarves from Nairobi; the scarves are available for sale on our Etsy site. We have over 10 new designs and colors available for purchase! A bit more about the Maisha Collective: The Maisha Collective: Every Scarf Tells A Story

The Maisha Collective, a project of Heshima Kenya, empowers refugee girls and young women from DR Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Burundi with economic opportunities to rebuild their lives with peace and dignity. By managing a business collective that designs and produces a line of unique hand-dyed scarves, participants gain life-long business and marketing skills that develop their confidence and prepare them for future independence. The power of purchase inspires their journey to support, empower, and ultimately protect other young refugee women.

All profits are returned directly to Collective participants as weekly wages and support of their ongoing engagement in Heshima Kenya's education and shelter programs.

Positive Impacts from The Safe House

By Jessica Brown - Advocacy and Grants Coordinator

One of the most rewarding things about our work is realizing the positive outcomes from our young women who have worked so hard to overcome their traumatic experiences and strive for a better life. We cannot emphasize enough our pride in their resilience and endurance.

Margaret’s Exceptional Strides

In November, Margaret shared her powerful story that told of the trauma she experienced before arriving at The Safe House. Margaret was forced to flee the Congo due to violent soldier attacks on her village, during which she was separated from her mother, uncle, and the rest of her family. Despite the adversities she experienced, Margaret thrived at The Safe House and in her school. We are happy to report her hard work has had extremely powerful results. Margaret has successfully exited The Safe House and is now living with two other girls also enrolled in Heshima Programs.  She is currently working as an assistant teacher with Heshima Kenya and continues to go to school at night.  Margaret is a wonderful example of the strong capabilities our young women possess.

Natalie: A Natural Leader

Natalie is 17 years old and arrived in the Safe House from the Congo ten months ago.  Despite the hardships she experienced, Natalie persevered to succeed and become a leader to others at the Safe House. Her support and assistance of her fellow peers led to Natalie’s election by the young women to be their representative – they come to her when they have issues, concerns, or questions.  She uses her role to engage the others in unique, positive ways – such as creating a cleanliness competition, where many girls were rewarded with trophies and gifts. She also acts as a liaison for staff, working to sensitively advise young women who are having trouble adjusting to the rules of the Safe House and briefing staff on the outcome.  Most recently, Natalie was elected as the President of the Girl’s Empowerment Program and received a sponsorship to pursue her education. She continues to work hard to further her education and be a strong leader to her peers in the Safe House.

Jeantile’s Courage

Courage can be defined as the power or quality of dealing with or facing danger, fear, or pain. Jeantile, 16, demonstrates courage in action.  In her very short time at the Safe House, Jeantile has shown courage to overcome her struggles and has improved immensely. Upon arrival, the horrors and trauma she and her son experienced in her recent past caused Jeantile to exhibit low self-esteem, be reserved around others, and be very possessive of her son. She constantly felt unsafe, and was anxious that she and her son would be displaced and need to make another long journey at any moment’s notice. After continuous counseling, providing assurance, and constant assessment, Jeantile has developed higher self-esteem and a sense of safety and confidence that she and her son are in a secure place. This has led to a healthy detachment from her son, allowing him to attend nursery school to further his development, as she attends education classes at the Girl’s Empowerment Program.  Jeantile demonstrates the bravery and potential that we work to uncover in all of the young women in The Safe House.

Thank you again for your support and commitment, which makes it possible for girls like these to begin to lead empowered lives.

Go Mina!

Please check out this exciting contest and root on our own Auxiliary Council member, Mina Lee. Mina contributed her suave and savvy design expertise to make last year's Fashion Challenge a hit! Mina's company, A Swan Event, has been invited to participate in the Bridgeport Art Center's "Affordable Wedding Contest". A Swan Event is planning a "Shakespeare in Love" theme, which you can read more about here. You can follow A Swan Event on Facebook and Twitter.

The contest will be held on Valentine’s Day. Stay tuned - the winner will be announced the same afternoon! Mina's offered to donate a portion of the award to Heshima Kenya if she wins. Go Mina! And thank you!

Margaret's Voice

One of the most powerful things that Heshima Kenya does is empower girls to share their stories. As our caseworker Osop says, "We give voices to girls who were told never to speak." The following is Margaret's story, told in her own words. Sometimes it is like a story, like it didn't happen to me. It was 2004. It was July. I was 14. Each day in Bukavu [Congo] we would listen to the radio to see if it was safe to go to school. That day it wasn't. It was 6 or 6:30 that night and just starting to get dark when we heard the shooting. They would shoot to scare us so that we would stay in our houses. Then soldiers would go house to house and do things like force fathers to sleep with their daughters while they watched. My mother wanted to hide in the house. My uncle said, "If you hide under the bed, they will find you! Come! We will run!" Outside the streets were full of people running to get away. Some were covered in blood. If an old lady fell, or a baby, people would run right over them because if they stopped, the people in the back would run over them. There were disabled people in wheelchairs by the side of the road, crying. They couldn't push themselves anymore without getting trampled. My uncle held onto my wrist and never let me go.

We didn't see my mother and brother, but my uncle said not to worry, that they were behind or ahead of us. We ran all night. We crossed into Rwanda to a forest. My mother and brother never came. We couldn't go back to look for them because we were afraid we'd be caught. I was crying, crying. "I want my mom. I want my mom." My uncle took me on his back. "Don't worry," he said. "When we reach someplace safe, then we'll look for them." I tried to understand, but my heart wouldn't let me. Eventually he left me with someone and went back to look for his wife, who had also gone missing. "I will come back for you," he said. But he never came. That woman got tired of keeping me and gave me to another woman who brought me to Kenya. That was seven years ago.

God has helped me in so many ways. I got an education. I didn't even pay anything for it. Education is a privilege. Now I help other girls in teh Safe House with their schoolwork. "The hand that gives is the hand that receives." I never saw my mom again, but I try and remember all the good things my mother told me.

Today is th GlobalGiving Girl Effect Challenge Bonus Day. To support more girls like Margaret and help Heshima Kenya receive critical funding from the Girl Effect Fund, visit our fundraising page. Even a donation of just $10 will make a tremendous difference.

The Girl Effect in Action!

Have you heard of the Girl Effect? The Girl Effect is the “unique and undisputable potential of adolescent girls to end poverty for themselves and the world.” Sound familiar? At Heshima Kenya, the Girl Effect is happening every day. It happens when Bontu, 21, is able to live on her own and support her baby thanks to the education and training she received from our Girl’s Empowerment Project. It’s Iragi, 18, writing a Heshima Kenya anthem and leading other girls as they perform the song (posted below). It’s all the girls, from Somalia, DR Congo, Ethiopia and Burundi, who put aside their cultural and ethnic differences and celebrate their diversity, working together to learn about their rights and educate their communities. We know that Heshima Kenya is the Girl Effect in action, but now is our chance to prove it. Beginning October 15, Heshima Kenya will be participating in the GlobalGiving Girl Effect Challenge. Win the challenge, and we’ll be an official part of the international Girl Effect campaign, receiving recognition and funding that will help us continue to provide essential shelter, education, and support for adolescent refugee girls in Nairobi, Kenya. And we need you to help us win!

Starting October 15, we will be trying to get the most unique donors on our Girl’s Empowerment Project page on GlobalGiving. That means we want as many different people as possible to give $10 or more, and then – here’s the important part! – encourage 10 friends to do the same. Passing it on means you’re helping girls have their stories heard. In the words of one Heshima girl, “I believe I am a leader because I don’t have to be old to have my voice heard. It all depends on how much I believe and use my brain.”

We believe in the Girl Effect! Help Heshima Kenya win the Challenge – stay tuned in the coming days for more information about how you can help.

Women are the peacemakers

Natalie only recently arrived at Heshima this spring from the Congo, but already has blossomed amongst new friends and new books, growing more confident with each passing day. An eager student of 16 years, Natalie is a quick learner and constantly asked me for more books and assignments to write. While she is naturally shy and reserved, with a pen in her hand Natalie is at no loss for words and commands a mastery of English far beyond her 8 years of formal schooling. Her father was a professor years ago and inspired her intellectual curiosity as well as intuitive understanding that only some men resort to treating women poorly.

“Living hell is this world in the absence of women,” Natalie writes, and she has seen hell on Earth. Fleeing her childhood home in the dead of night after rebels sacked her village, Natalie saw her father killed while trying to reason with the attackers. Women are peacemakers, she insists, but they are not able to fulfill this vital role when they are treated like objects. Natalie notes this objectification has plagued women in the Congo even before the rebel war that destroyed her family and her home. She explains that “most men in my homeland treat women as their objects since they have to pay a bride price or dowry before marriage,” literally degrading women to a commodity to be traded between father and husband.

Natalie relishes the opportunity to voice her opinions so freely now in Kenya, producing a long list of the Congo’s gender disparities. Women cannot eat all types of meat that men can, cannot go to school without male permission, are married off young at men’s behest, and possess no freedom of movement.  It is little wonder that Natalie so relishes the educational opportunities at Heshima; were she still in the Congo, she understands that she would likely be married off by now at the age of 16 and denied the right to continue her education. Natalie is passionate about going to college someday. “Congolese men still believe that a man must have the last say,” she explains, and despite her shy demeanor, Natalie today possesses a confidence that will permit no man to stop her from attaining her education.

Written by Beth Goldberg

The Maisha Collective is now online!

We are excited to announce that last week, Heshima Kenya launched its online store on Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade items. Scarves from our 2011 Maisha Collective line are now available for purchase online and at Heshima Kenya's office at 4917 N. Damen in Chicago. Check out our Etsy page and buy a scarf today! Here are a few styles that you will find at our online store.

Please stay tuned to find out more about opportunities to purchase Maisha Collective scarves, and about new designs that we have in store!

Would you like to model your Maisha Collective scarf for Heshima Kenya? Send us a photo of you wearing your scarf and tell us a little bit about how you share Heshima Kenya’s vision! We might just feature you on our blog and Facebook page. Send your photos to

The most special people on Earth

Asho is the class clown who gets straight A’s, immediately endearing her to her peers and teachers alike. She keeps those around her laughing with her lighthearted jokes, while maintaining a distanced independence and maturity beyond her 17 years that hints at her troubled past. Originally from southern Somalia, Asho chooses not to talk about her old life there and is very much acclimated to her new home in Nairobi after two years with Heshima. With her big sister style of tough love and self-assured independence, Asho was enthusiastic to talk candidly about the role of women in her society.

“Women are the most special people on Earth” Asho begins, with characteristic, unabashed directness.  She describes the importance of women’s role both as tender care-givers and as leaders, however repressed they are in the latter role today.  Without pause, she explains matter-of-factly how women “are mistreated by men in all different cultures around the world.”  Asho describes this gender inequality as a cultural problem, displaying a mature understanding that relegating women to doing house chores is a cultural decision, not an inherent problem with men. She laments that currently in her Somali culture, “when [men] hear a woman will be a leader, they put their fingers in their ears to show that they will not trust women with confidence.”

A woman with confidence is exactly what Asho is. She has taken on leadership roles within Heshima’s Girls Empowerment Project and photographed for this blog. Regardless of the gender discrimination Asho has seen or personally faced in her 17 short years, she remains a role model at Heshima in her maturity and openhearted understanding that all people are equal. “What men can do” she says, “We women can do with the same ability.”

Written by Beth Goldberg

The Power of Music

Music plays such a big role in my everyday life. Growing up in a Muslim family, my mother never fails to remind me about how haram (forbidden) it is. I often get laughed at for wearing big ear phones over my hijab or going to concerts, but it helps me get through certain things occurring in my life. Music causes me to bring out emotions I didn’t know even existed. I often leave my iPod on shuffle, allowing for random songs to be selected and within 20 minutes, I can feel excited, sad, happy and angry. When I was getting ready to leave for Nairobi I made sure my iPod was updated with the most recent music by my favourite artists. Until now, I’ve never been to Kenya so I really had no idea what the music was like here. I expected everyone here would be listening to local Kenyan singers. My first few days here were exactly as I had predicted. The majority of the cab drivers played music I didn’t understand.

About a week into my arrival in Kenya, I started interning at Heshima. After getting the run down on how everything goes and what I would be doing there, I had the opportunity to begin interacting with the girls. After asking me my name, where I came from and if I had a boyfriend, the girls asked me if I liked music. I explained to them that “like” was an understatement. Within an hour of getting to know the girls my ideas revolving around Kenya and music were proven wrong. The girls were so up to date with the music in North America, I was quite shocked. Girls who could barely speak English, knew every single word of Justin Beiber’s songs. It put the biggest smile on my face. I knew the girls and I were going to form a great relationship over the next couple of months.

As I got to know each of the girls more and more everyday, I began to see how important music is in each of their lives. The way they brighten up when talking about their favourite song, or the way they start to blush when talking about how cute they think Chris Brown is. It’s crazy to see how people use and interpret music in different ways. Personally, I use music to help me study, get me through a workout at the gym, or to help me fall asleep. The girls at Heshima Kenya seem to use it for something totally different.  They spend the majority of the day within their circle of friends; whether they are in the classroom, doing tailoring, or having lunch. But I have noticed that when talking or listening to music, the girls all come together. It really is such an unbelievable thing to see a group of girls, from different countries, who speak different dialects, and have different problems, connect through the power of music!

Along with the ability to create friendships, I feel like music truly helps the girls who are going through a complicated time in their lives. By turning up the volume on the CD player and dancing with their friends, I sense the girls use music to escape their struggles and dilemmas. It helps reduce their stress levels by allowing them to forget their problems and just have fun. It creates unity amongst the girls, bringing them together, and making them feel like they all belong. I always knew music was something potent, but the girls really prove how powerful a device music can really be!

-Amal Absiye