No girl left behind: GirlForward provides a safe space and powerful mentorship for teen refugee girls working tirelessly to acclimate to America’s fast-paced lifestyle, while preserving their own culture and traditions.
CHICAGO, IL–Domitira Nahishakiye (endearingly nicknamed Domi from friends) grew up in a refugee camp in Tanzania before relocating to Chicago in 2008. She enrolled in school but struggled to keep up. “When I met Domi, she’d been in the city for three years and was still very isolated,” said Blair Brettschneider, Founder and Executive Director of GirlForward. “She didn’t know that the library was a block from her house or really how to navigate the CTA.”
Blair was working at a refugee resettlement agency when she met Domi in 2011. She would eventually mentor Domi one-on-one in her home, a relationship that would transform Domi’s life, and spark the idea for GirlForward, a safe space and mentorship program for refugee teen girls living in Chicago.
It was her relationship with Domi that inspired Blair to start a program specifically for girls. Through her work with Domi, Blair realized that refugee girls, specifically, were at a disadvantage. “I knew there were other girls in her position,” Blair said.
Refugee girls, and especially the oldest girls, are expected to take on a lot of additional responsibility for the family. They’re cooking and cleaning and taking care of their younger siblings, and academics are pushed to the side. “While refugee boys aren’t without their challenges, they have a lot more freedom,” Blair said.
Domi, the oldest of five children, spent most of her time taking care of her siblings. Blair’s tutoring sessions were often cut short because of Domi’s obligations around the home. But Blair didn’t give up. Instead she forged a more personal relationship with Domi, meeting her in her home, working around her chores and tedious schedule. And the persistence paid off. In 2012, Domi graduated from high school and is currently studying to become a nurse.
After witnessing Domi’s transformation Blair began weighing the possibility of starting her own agency. And so in August of 2011, Blair began GirlForward, now located in the Rogers Park neighborhood on Chicago’s north side. The essential idea is that when refugee girls are afforded an individual mentor, dedicated to their success, they will thrive.
GirlForward offers teen refugees, relocating from around the world, renewed hope and a sense of companionship. Teenage girls have other girls to relate to, to share their struggles with, but most importantly to share their hopes for the future with. And that’s been the biggest success of GirlForward–creating a safe space for girls to recognize their potential.
During her time with Domi, Blair noticed something else about refugee girls that was particularly noteworthy. Even though refugee girls faced the toughest challenges, they also made the most effective solution. Since everything they learned typically trickled back through the family, it was an effective way to reach more refugees. “Domi was the first person in her family to have a bank account,” Blair said. She began collecting any income her siblings made, and helped to teach them about savings and finances. “Things that she learns are transferred to the rest of the family.” So starting with young refugee girls, could extend an agency’s reach exponentially.
GirlForward has helped over 100 girls since 2011. There is the prominent hope that a girl’s time spent with GirlForward will encourage them to consider college, though GirlForward’s simpler hope is to create a space for girls to gain a renewed sense of confidence to chase whatever dream they may have.
14-year-old Hanan Abdulkareem came to the U.S. from Iraq in 2008. Her family resettled on Chicago’s far north side. In Girls Like Us; Stories by the Young Women of GirlForward, Hanan wrote, “I believe in dreams. I think dreams are the most important things in life because they are the future. Without dreams, there is no future.”
Hanan went on to list her own personal dreams including becoming a fashion designer and returning to Iraq to build an orphanage and a hospital for the poor. “You might have more [dreams] than I do,” she wrote, “but it’s okay because dreams don’t have to be one or two.” And more and more GirlForward is positioning itself as a springboard for these lofty dreams that may have otherwise been muted by the stress of navigating day-to-day life in a foreign land.
And while relocating to any new country is inevitably difficult, relocating to an urban city, such as Chicago, can pose a particular challenge, which is keeping refugees from simply falling through the cracks.
GirlForward is located in Rogers Park, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago. Chicago’s far north side has been a hot spot for refugees since 1975, when the first wave of refugees relocated from Vietnam. And the area only continues to grow more diverse in time. “Up until the year 2000 we generally had two, three, at most four language groups in large numbers,” Edwin Silverman, the Illinois State Refugee Coordinator told WBEZ. “Since the year 2000 we’ve resettled people from 62 nations. Last year we were dealing with 47 different languages.”
In Rogers Park, refugees are an integral part of the culture. But in general, refugees tend to get lost in big-city crowds, Blair said. “I’ve had people tell me they didn’t even realize that refugees lived in Chicago. It’s especially difficult in urban environments,” Blair said. “In rural environments, schools, churches and other organizations tend to notice and rally behind them.”
But as the north side of Chicago continues to attract refugees from around the world, it simultaneously attracts refugee relocation organizations, sympathetic to the unique plight of the refugee and determined to give families the boost they need to get started in America.
This summer, GirlForward has a lot to celebrate. On the last weekend of June, GirlForward is hosting a graduation ceremony for the GirlForward seniors. Every graduate is college bound. And in August, the organization will celebrate its third anniversary.
Want to get involved? GirlForward provides adolescent refugee girls with individual mentorship, educational programs and leadership opportunities, creating a community of support that serves as a resource and empowers girls to be strong, confident, and independent. GirlForward believes a strong, empowered, confident girl today will become an independent woman who can successfully support herself, her family, and her community. You can donate, or sign up to be a mentor, here.