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Nov 10, 2015 | EDOT Staff

Kenyan Effort Supports Most Vulnerable

Heshima Kenya is a nonprofit organization in Kenya that helps unaccompanied and separated refugee children and youth, especially girls, young women and their children living in Nairobi.


Many of the young women, 13-24, are from Somalia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi who have fled war, experienced the brutal loss of family members and, in many cases, endured kidnapping, rape, trafficking and torture. Heshima Kenya provides shelter, education, vocational training and case management, and advocates for the young women and their children. At the core of Heshima Kenya’s model is a social network that empowers girls and young women to strive for economic self-sufficiency and become community leaders in their own right.


Arushi is 17-year-old who was orphaned at six by the war in Sudan. She was lucky to be taken in by a relative, but fled at 13 when her aunt married her off to a much older man. Arushi ended up alone in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya, forced to run again when the man’s family tracked her down. She was living on the outskirts on Nairobi when she was referred to Heshima and taken to one of their safe houses.


“Arushi was suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorders when she arrived,” said Alice Eshuchi, country director of Heshima Kenya. “She used to get recurrent seizures and panic attacks that lasted all day, but with mental health care and the support we provided, she has become a leader. Her life has been transformed. Now she advocates for others.”


Adolescent girls experience the highest rates of exploitation and abuse, Eshuchi said. Nearly 60 percent of the 700 young women supported by the Heshima have experienced some form of sexual- or gender-based violence. “The figure is probably closer to 80 percent if all incidents were reported,” Eshuchi said.


Many of the 600,000 refugees who are now in Kenya will never return home or be offered asylum in another country. Kenya has played host to a sustained refugee crisis since the early 1990s, and the capacity of the country’s handful of humanitarian organizations cannot meet the specialized needs of girls and young women, the most invisible and vulnerable of refugees. In 2008, co-founders Anne Sweeney and Talyn Good established Heshima, which means “respect” in Swahili.


Sweeney helped to resettle newly arrived Ethiopian refugees in Chicago in 2000 and later worked with the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program in Kenya before founding Heshima Kenya. She wanted to help build an organization that focused on long-term solutions, and Heshima became the safety net this vulnerable population so desperately needed. The nonprofit now maintains offices in Nairobi and Chicago.


With their holistic program model, Heshima Kenya provides shelter and safety; medical assistance and trauma counseling; parenting support, nutrition and child development; and education and life skills as well as  income while the young women rebuild their lives. The model is designed to protect, nurture, educate and empower; to build a foundation for economic independence; and to develop the young women to become decision-makers and agents of change in their communities.


“We learn patience and tolerance from [the girls’] strengths and their courage,” Sweeney said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune last year. She told of Dahabo, a 20-year-old who has one leg, never knew her family and was shot in the crossfire in her home village before finding her way to Kenya. “She banged every day on the U. N. gates until she found Heshima,” Sweeney said. Dahabo now lives in Minneapolis.


According to Eshuchi, 18 percent of their girls are resettled compared to a global average of 1 percent. More than 103 young women have graduated from Heshima’s tailoring program since 2012 and 87 girls have participated in the Maisha Collective since its launch in 2010. Using traditional African dyeing techniques, this collective produces handmade scarves that are available for sale. More than 80 percent of the collective members are now self-reliant and contributing toward their host family’s rent or living independently.


More than $290,000 has been raised from the Maisha scarf sales and 100 percent of the proceeds are reinvested into Heshima Kenya programs and each collective member’s savings.