Megan Sidhu

A Day at Lake Naivasha

“To be called a refugee is not an insult; it is a badge of strength, courage, and victory.”

-Tennessee Office for Refugees

My role with Heshima Kenya as Grants Manager is to both capture the strengths, challenges and data of the organization, as well as capture the moments, stories and genuine impact of our programming on the girls and young women through writing. This is my first trip to our campus in Nairobi, Kenya. After spending two weeks here getting to know the wonderful, hard-working staff, sitting and talking to the girls who are part of the programming, and spending time on our beautiful campus, I know I will never truly be able to fully capture the resilience and restored hope of our little corner of the world in Nairobi.

During our two-week stay here, we were lucky enough to attend a field trip to the nearby Lake Naivasha with the girls that are part of the Girls’ Empowerment Project (GEP) and the Safe House. Many of the girls said it was the best day of their lives. They were so happy to have a field trip outside of the Safe House and outside of the GEP.  Their energy and happiness were so contagious. After everything that these girls and young women have experienced and gone through, to have a day like was the perfect way to decompress and just be themselves. It was also the best day of the trip for me because witnessing the girls’ happiness and free-spirit in person reassured me that the hard work that we put in each day to better our programming and include more girls is all sincerely worth it.

I sat next to 17-year old Esperance from the Congo on the bus ride there. Her English was very good and we talked about the different sights we saw along the way, what she liked to study in school the most, and the fact that she wants to be a nurse when she grows up. She spoke softly, but with a sense of confidence and unparalleled optimism that she would achieve her dreams one day. I told her that I was originally from Sarajevo, Bosnia and that I, too, had been a former refugee but was now living as a citizen in the United States. I saw myself in her eyes – the hope and yearning for something better is the very same search that I went through when I was younger. I asked her about how she felt being a part of the Safe House and going to classes at the GEP. She said that the Safe House provided her with a sense of safety that she has never felt in her life so far, and that the ability to go to school here and make friends and learn at the same time is something she cannot thank God enough for.

Every refugee may come from a different country and have a different story, but just as I connected with Esperance because our stories are very similar, we are all connected by our hope and dreams for a peaceful future and better world. Nairobi has forever changed me and I feel now, more so than I ever have, the push and motivation to continue to advocate for our girls’ rights and create better opportunities for them to live a happy and normal life, just as I am blessed to have after my days as a refugee. 

Azra Husejnovic, Grant Manager for Heshima Kenya

Communicating Beyond Language

This post was written by Alexandra Corazza, Founder of Finding Roots & Wings. Finding Roots & Wings is a multimedia storytelling project, facilitating communication with and between refugee women as they seek to rebuild their lives. FRW focuses on stories of hope and seeks to hold up a mirror, showing women their strengths and resilience. Workshops are designed to not only share ideas and skills of multimedia promotion and storytelling, but also to find a way to facilitate communication, to process experiences beyond language and beyond cultural barriers. Holistic healing through storytelling.

I first met Furaha on a cloudy morning--winter-in-July in Nairobi. I had been given a bit of background about all the young women and girls from Heshima Kenya that would be joining my workshops. But, what I learned about Furaha stood out to me. She had lost her hearing not too long ago from loud explosions caused by war and violence in her home country, Burundi. I was told that she was able to communicate in English through writing, which she learned, thanks to the gentle folks at Heshima. I was also told that she spent most of her free time off on her own—finding it difficult to join in on casual conversations with friends.

Furah modeling the newest Maisha Collective designs. 

Furah modeling the newest Maisha Collective designs. 

I got to work, writing out the lesson plans with as much detail as possible on slips of paper that I would give to Furaha each day before class. She would respond in writing with any questions or an “OK” and a smile! Then, the cameras came out. There were two cameras that the class could share for the assignments each day. When Furaha got her turn, it was like the shades were lifted and the world was in color again. It was hard for her to give up that camera. She would come running over to me, showing me shots she had taken. And her photos are good—she is a talented photographer and storyteller. She found a way to communicate with me beyond language and cultural barriers.

Our final video project.

I have since left Kenya, but Furaha and I are still communicating regularly through social media messages and photos.  She is working as a seamstress with the Maisha Collective and hopes to find a way forward when her time with Maisha comes to a close. And so, the collaboration with Heshima Kenya continues. FRW is launching a cellphone collection and fundraising campaign to return to Kenya in 2017 and hold further workshops, not only with the girls in the Safe House, but also with the women who are off to build their lives in Nairobi.

You can find Finding Roots & Wings on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Heshima Presents at SoHo House New York Panel

On June 23rd, Heshima Kenya co-hosted a unique panel at the SoHo House New York on “Creative Solutions to the Refugee Crisis.” With over 100 people in attendance, panelists discussed the pressing issues of the refugee crisis and challenges facing refugees around the world. Heshima Kenya’s executive director, Alisa Roadcup, joined in conversation with activist and model Mari Malek; Sara Green, Art for Refugees in Transition (A.R.T.); Meredith Hutchison, International Rescue Committee; which was moderated by Luna Atamian of the Huffington Post.

The audience learned about the misconceptions that affect the way people view refugees, as well as practical ways to advocate for this global crisis, which now affects 1 in 113 people. The panel discussed the power of storytelling, an effective strategy to humanize an overwhelming issue and make it easier for people to understand. All panelists encouraged the audience to take to social media, share stories and educate their friends. Mari’s biggest piece of advice was, “Use your platform, don’t let your platform use you.”

Everyone agreed that the common stereotype of refugees as a burden on society is still at the forefront of discussion on the crisis, which often results in government policies that neglect the needs and rights of refugees. Meredith commented on how to solicit change in this realm, “Public perception has to change, and then drive policy. We can't wait.”

At the end of the panel, each speaker expressed their wishes for a more understanding, inclusive and active community advocating for refugees. Alisa Roadcup remarked, “We all hold tight to a vision of human flourishing.” From a certain standpoint, the refugee crisis can seem unmanageable. However, through collaboration and togetherness, we can make a tangible difference in the lives of refugees. 

Make an impact today and buy a Maisha Collective scarf here.

Heshima Kenya appoints Mr. Benedict Nganga as Kenya Country Director

Heshima Kenya is pleased to announce the appointment of Benedict Nganga as Kenya Country Director. Mr. Nganga brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise from his 21+ year career in the NGO sector. Prior to his new appointment, Benedict served as the Senior Programs Manager for Heshima, where he monitored, evaluated and grew Heshima Kenya’s programs.

Benedict holds a Master of Arts in Project Planning and Management from The University of Nairobi, a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work from the University of Nairobi and an Advanced Certificate of Education. Benedict joined Heshima Kenya in January 2015, having previously worked with renowned local and international NGOs in his home country of Kenya. He has successfully led organizations to greater heights in strengthening programmatic and overall systems.

“Heshima Kenya was founded to provide a lifeline to the most vulnerable of the world’s refugees: adolescent girls and young women,” Benedict says. “My dream is to see all young refugee girls and children in Kenya self-sufficient and able to contribute positively for the good of humanity.”

Alisa Roadcup, executive director of Heshima Kenya, shares, “Benedict’s leadership at Heshima Kenya has already proven invaluable. Every day, Benedict brings his full commitment and energies to our cause. We are honored to have him as a steward of our work and look forward to his continued success with Heshima Kenya.”

Heshima Kenya is internationally recognized for its innovative and holistic model, which meets the full spectrum of needs for the most vulnerable of the world’s refugees: young women and girls. Heshima Kenya provides refugee women with shelter, medical care, education, case management and income-generation training that enables their girls to become financially independent and leaders in their own right.

Fashion Designer Lagi Nadeau Partners with Heshima Kenya to Empower Refugee Women

Heshima Kenya is thrilled to announce a partnership with Chicago designer, Lagi Nadeau. Nadeau will be traveling to Nairobi, Kenya with Heshima staff in late March of 2015 to mentor and design with the 40 women and girls of Heshima Kenya’s Maisha Collective. Together they will create and produce an exclusive handmade jewelry line. The collection will be a truly unique collaboration incorporating Nadeau’s modern style with Maisha’s vibrant hand dyed fabrics to create a one of a kind jewelry collection.

Lagi Nadeau is a recent Chicago Fashion Incubator alum designer and the winner of the 2014 Fashion Group International of Chicago's Rising Star Award in the women's apparel category and a designer whose distinct style utilizes luxurious fabrics to create sophisticated and feminine pieces. Ms. Nadeau has been featured in Marie Claire, WWD, Vogue Knitting, VIBE, and Refinery29, and  is one of six Designers-In-Residence with the Chicago Fashion Incubator at Macy’s on State Street. Nadeau came to Heshima last year, as a talented competitor in Heshima Kenya's Annual Fashion Challenge. In regards to the collaboration, Ms. Nadeau comments, “As a designer, I am deeply inspired by textiles and I was so impressed when I first saw the work of the women and girls of Heshima Kenya’s Maisha Collective. I love everything that Heshima Kenya stands for and this partnership is very special to me, I am truly grateful for this collaboration.”

Alisa Roadcup, Executive Director of Heshima Kenya, welcomes this collaboration with Lagi Nadeau saying,  “Nadeau’s brand represents the same values as upheld by The Maisha Collective; namely, a fierce commitment to designing exceptionally beautiful products that empower and inspire women and girls around the world.”

This limited-edition line, named Lagi Nadeau for Heshima Kenya is set to launch on April 15th, 2015 and will be available for wholesale and retail purchase online at Etsy and at


Women Fashion Power

by Sarah Cole Kammerer Women Fashion Power

A few weeks ago, a friend shared with me a picture of the following text “Women Fashion Power: Not a multiple choice”. It was in reference to an exhibition of the same name currently at the Design Museum in London. The exhibition shows how public figures - princesses, elected officials, CEOs - have used fashion as a tool of self-expression and empowerment to build reputation, attract attention and assert authority.

Last night I had the opportunity to attend Heshima Kenya’s 2014 Fashion Challenge. The evening’s goal is to both celebrate and support refugee girls and young women in Nairobi who have been welcomed into the Heshima Family. These women - often children and youth, often victims of violence and rape, often pregnant, often abandoned by their families - have nowhere to go. The organization provides shelter, education and a loving community that shows these women that they too can have strength and health, hope and dignity.

The Fashion Challenge highlights the Maisha Collective, Heshima Kenya’s income-generating project in which the women produce beautiful hand-dyed scarves. The product, is beautiful, however, it is the process that is the real art. The Collective teaches business management and marketing skills through the design and production of scarves and textiles and, as as result, the women develop the confidence and leadership skills needed for future independence.

Fashion: used to build reputation, attract attention and assert authority.

Last night simply was a celebration. We were joined by some of Heshima’s girls, as they affectionally call themselves; women who won the refugee ‘lottery’ to come to the United States. I was amazed by these women - women who have overcome horrors we can’t begin to imagine - their quiet strength, beauty and intelligence radiating throughout the room.

The event was generously hosted at Room 1520, a loft-like event space in the West Loop. It had a high-end fashion feel; immediately it felt as if I was attending Fashion Week in New York City. A special thanks to Pure Kitchen Catering for their delicious bites, Empirical Brewery for their selection draft beers (loved that Honey Hypothesis) and Wirtz Beverage for their generous donation of red and white wine.

Five designers from Chicago participated in the Project Runway-inspired competition. The designers - Borris Powell of Borris Powell, Katelyn Pankoke of Elaya Vaughn, Lagi Nadeau of Lagi Nadeau, Meredith Banzhoff of Meredith Banzhoff and Kahindo Mateene of Modahnik - received two Maisha Collective Scarves chosen at random and then had two weeks to design a dress and accessory.

As the models strutted down the runway in the beautiful colors of Kenya transformed into designs that any woman could wear, I couldn't help but think of Fatuma, a woman who couldn’t read or write when she arrived at Heshima. Today, she is a project manager for the organization in Kenya and the co-author of a graphic novella. Or Ailene, the 18 year old artisan from DRC and mother of her beautiful 2 year old son Joshua, who, when she learned about the fashion show in Chicago said: “I am so happy. It makes me want to produce beautiful designs for people all over the world."

The winner of the Fashion Challenge was Modahnik, whose beautiful backless dress elicited ohhh’s and ahhhh’s from the entire room. But the real prize was a night celebrating women, fashion and power and I was so honored to be a part of it.

Sarah Cole Kammerer is a communications and engagement consultant and a member of the Heshima Kenya Fashion Challenge Planning Committee. —— If you missed the event and would like to purchase a scarf, please visit our Etsy Shop or follow this link to make a donation.

To see images or tweets from last night check out: #HKFashionChallenge, #FashionEmpowers, #MaishaCollective, #EveryScarfTellsAStory, and #HeshimaKenya. And while you’re there, be sure to follow Heshima on Twitter @Heshima_Kenya and Instagram @HeshimaKenya.

A special thanks to our fabulous host: Windy City LIVE's co-host, Val Warner and our judges: Dawn Bonasera, Global Store Director, Louis Vuitton - Michigan Avenue Erica Strama, Marketing Manager at The Shops at Northbridge Trevian Kutti, Style Guru

Thanks to our Host Committee: Shermin Kruse, Event Chair; Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon, Honorary Chair Mimi Frankel, Scott & Chris Gordon, Jen Cullerton Johnson, Candace Jordan, Mindie Kaplan, Andrea Kramer, Ann Laatsch, Phyllis Nolan, Naomi Ollis, Daphne Ortiz, Jill Rasmussen, Erin Reichl, Anne Ream, Alisa Roadcup, Rebecca Singer, Joshua Yates, Emily Hughey Quinn, Olga Bugaeva, Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, Angela Corsa, Rose Rutzen, Rosalind Raddatz, Souk Supantavong, Talyn Good, Zubin Talib, Luz Adriana Leahy and Patricia Amira.

And to our Planning Committee: Emily Knies, Event Director; Souk Supantavong, Fashion Director Shanita Akintonde, Nora Brathol, Sarah Cole Kammerer, Angela Corsa, Stephanie Juckem, Kristen Field, Elizabeth Futrell, Carly Hopps, Emily Knies, Alisa Roadcup and Souk Supantavong.

A Creative Collaboration: Heshima Kenya & Andie K

Partnering together around their joint passion for empowering vulnerable women and girls, Andie K and Heshima Kenya are teaming up for an exclusive event highlighting the unique contributions of women artisans around the world. Andie K is an artist and activist whose passion for women’s rights drives her vision. Inspired by local styles in Africa and Asia, Andie seeks out women artists who rely on handmade beads to support themselves and their families. She uses these beads to craft bold, one-of-a-kind jewelry. To further her mission of women’s empowerment, Andie donates all profits to organizations that benefit women and children.

Heshima Kenya is one of those organizations: it helps refugee girls and women in Kenya rebuild their lives and transform into community leaders and activists. As the only Kenyan organization devoted to the needs of female refugees, Heshima Kenya offers vital services to vulnerable girls and women. By providing female refugees with educational and vocational training, Heshima Kenya empowers them to achieve self-sufficiency and become advocates for change. Through Heshima Kenya’s Maisha Collective, refugee women use traditional hand-dyeing techniques to create unique, vibrant scarves. The income they earn allows them to support themselves and their children.

Andie K and Heshima Kenya share a common goal: the empowerment of women around the world. Their unique collaboration will feature exclusive new jewelry designs by Andie K, made with Fair Trade-certified Kazuri beads from Kenya and inspired by the colors and patterns of Heshima Kenya scarves. Through their partnership, they intend to support women artisans, call attention to the plight of refugee girls and women, and mobilize Chicago leaders who are interested in women’s rights. Together, Andie K and Heshima Kenya are speaking out for vulnerable women worldwide.

Amnesty International highlights challenges faced by Somali refugees

Written by Nicole Cunha-GomesIntern, Heshima Kenya

After a grenade assault took the lives of her mother, father and brother, Fatuma escaped from Somalia to Nairobi, Kenya, in hopes of creating a brighter future for herself. In 2009, Fatuma found Heshima Kenya and began rebuilding her life with hope and dignity. However, the current precarious political situation for Somalis in Kenya threatens her progress.

In the field report Somalis are Scapegoats in Kenya’s Counter-Terror Crackdown, Amnesty International highlights the recent increase in tension between the Kenyan government and the Somali refugee community in Kenya. On December 13, 2012, the Kenyan government announced a directive to forcibly relocate all refugees to camps. Two years later, in response to attacks in Mombasa and Eastleigh by Somali-based terrorist organization Al Shabaab, the Kenyan government turned its attention more specifically to Somali refugees in the country by launching Operation Usalama Watch: a security initiative targeting asylum-seekers and refugees in Kenya who are thought to be guilty of perpetuating acts of terrorism in the country.

For this report, Amnesty International interviewed asylum-seekers and refugees affected by Operation Usalama Watch to understand how this security initiative has impacted their lives. The report uncovers human rights violations carried out by Kenyan security personnel who allegedly intimidated and harassed their victims, at times using violence to ascertain their immigration status: many were accused of carrying fake documentation and forced to pay bribes to avoid detention; those who could not afford the bribes were taken to unsanitary detention centers and deprived of food, water and bathroom facilities. Amnesty International reports that at least two people have died during Operation Usalama Watch.

Over 1000 refugees have been forcibly relocated to refugee camps since May 2014. There has also been an increase in the number of people requesting to go to the camps because of their fear of the Kenyan security forces and desperation as they run out of money from extortion. A number of people have resorted to self-exile; by staying at home they hope to avoid being stopped by police, forced to pay bribes, and relocated to refugee camps.

Somalis in Kenya, like Fatuma, find themselves stuck in a legal conundrum. They are required to register officially as refugees to avoid arrest and expulsion; however, the fear of terrorism in Kenya has made it difficult for Somalis to be granted refugee status. Amnesty International recommends, therefore, that the Government of Kenya abandon Operation Usalama Watch in favor of pursuing previous efforts to work alongside the Somali government and the UNCHR to create a framework for the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees.

At Heshima Kenya, the Girls' Empowerment Project and Outreach Program continue to operate at full capacity. The safety and security of the girls and women at Heshima Kenya is our top priority; therefore, we are committed to working alongside the Kenyan government to safeguard the rights of vulnerable refugee girls and women during this period of insecurity and unrest. A misappropriation of blame and a misuse of rhetoric work together to obscure the distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘terrorists’, blurring the lines of accountability. Many of the young refugee girls we serve were forced to flee their home countries because of terrorism; unfortunately, the current situation in Kenya means that these girls, sadly, now find themselves affected by the same acts of terrorism that forced them to flee in the first place.

Heshima Kenya thanks Amnesty International for publishing such an informative report. If you would like to help vulnerable refugee girls like Fatuma, take action and donate now to Heshima Kenya!

To view the full report: Amnesty International Report

A Farewell from Anne Sweeney

Dear Friends of Heshima Kenya, I am writing to share the news that, seven years after co-founding Heshima Kenya, I have decided to step away from my role as Executive Director while continuing to serve as an advisor for policy and development, especially for our Kenyan operations. This is a very positive transition for me and I am excited and proud that, after having committed so many years to its development, Heshima Kenya has evolved into such a vibrant and influential organization.

Heshima Kenya's Board of Directors and I are delighted to announce Alisa Roadcup as our new Executive Director. Many of you already know Alisa as she has served as our Director of US Advocacy and Development from 2012 to 2013, and more recently held the position of Director of Strategic Partnerships. Alisa brings more than fifteen years of professional experience in advocacy and programming, focusing on vulnerable girls and young women through her work with Amnesty International among other organizations. We are thrilled to have Alisa on board as Heshima Kenya's new leader.

The journey of building Heshima Kenya has been a profound experience for me on many levels. Heshima Kenya was founded as the first organization in Kenya devoted to the protection and empowerment of girls and young women fleeing persecution and the loss of their families in their native countries. As an advocate for refugee rights, I dedicated myself to building new and dignified opportunities for those who will never experience the justice they deserve. What Heshima Kenya has accomplished since 2008 has been awe-inspiring. Nearly seven years later, over 500 girls and young women have felt the direct impact of our programs; today they are Heshima Kenya’s greatest achievements - ambassadors of change in their own communities.

Thank you for believing in Heshima Kenya’s mission and for your unwavering support through the years.


Anne Sweeney

Co-founder & Executive Director Heshima Kenya July 2007 – June 2014


Contact: Anne Sweeney, Heshima Kenya (773) 574-5548; [email protected]

Mother's Day Gift Evokes Deeper Meaning: Hand-crafted Scarves
Made in Kenya by Young Women Refugees Turning Lives Around,
Thanks to Chicago Non-Profit

Chicago (April 30, 2014) – The latest shipment of Heshima Kenya’s popular Maisha scarves has arrived fresh from Nairobi, Kenya, as part of a continued movement by the Chicago-based organization to turn around the lives of young refugee women in Africa. The new Spring Collection features a special-edition scarf designed to celebrate mothers around the world in honor of Mother's Day. U.S. online orders entered by May 7 will arrive in time for the May 11 holiday.

The Spring Collection’s rich color palette evokes the diverse natural en­vironments of East Africa and the shores of the Indian Ocean. Anne Sweeney, Heshima Kenya’s Chicago-based Executive Director and co-founder, said: “We always say that every scarf tells a story, and that is certainly the case with the Amina Mother's Day scarf.” [See the collection.]

The Maisha Collective: Creative Outlet & Path Toward Independence

Every scarf is handmade by young refugee women in Heshima Kenya’s entrepreneurship-training pro­gram, The Maisha Collective. The reasonably priced scarves -- which come in multiple shapes, sizes and colors -- are painstakingly tasseled and dyed by hand, then named for their designer. In addition to serving as a creative outlet, the program teaches tailoring and financial literacy. Artisans earn a monthly stipend, open savings accounts, and are eligible for a small seed grant to start their own micro-enterprises when they graduate from the program. “Our goal is to empower refugee women to become leaders in their community,” Sweeney said.

The Amina Scarf Speaks to the Power of Mothers Everywhere

Named for its designer, this spring’s Amina scarf represents the strength of mothers everywhere. Amina fled with her infant daughter to Nairobi from her village in Ethiopia. She and her daughter were living on the streets of Kenya’s capital when they were referred to Heshima Kenya just over two years ago. At Heshima Kenya they have a safe place to live, Amina attends school, and her daughter participates in Heshima’s early education program.

After she joined the Maisha Collective, Amina became a leading creative force among her peers. She also learned business skills and was able to save money. Soon, she will use these and a small grant to begin a business of her own. Sweeney said: “Amina wants to give her daughter a better life, and, like mothers everywhere, it was her love for her daughter that helped her survive in times of great adversity.”

The Amina scarf is a rich mocha color with floral-inspired accents. Together with the rest of the spring line, it is available online through Etsy, select Chicago boutiques, and other ethnic fashion outlets. All online orders received by Wednesday, May 7, for delivery within the domestic United States will arrive before Mother’s Day. Sweeney said that 100% of sales proceeds are reinvested into Heshima Kenya’s programs and the savings of Maisha Collective members.

Heshima Kenya is a Chicago-based nonprofit with operations in Nairobi, Kenya. The organization pro­tects and empowers refugee women and girls ages 13 to 23 years old who have fled their countries to live in Nairobi and have no parents or other family to protect them. One out of four has children of her own.

Heshima Kenya provides shelter, education, case management, advocacy and a healing environment for girls and young women who experienced the trauma of war; loss of family; and, in many cases, kid­napping, rape, trafficking and torture. At the core of Heshima Kenya’s holistic model is the creation of a social network that empowers girls and young women to gain economic self-sufficiency and become community leaders in their own right. To date, Heshima Kenya has helped more than 500 young women turn their lives around. Learn more at

heshima. (n). Swahili. respect, honor, dignity


Launched in 2010, Heshima Kenya’s Maisha Collective is a peer-driven initiative that grows leadership, business skills, and economic self-sufficiency through the design, production, and sale of hand-dyed scarves. One hundred percent of proceeds are reinvested into Heshima Kenya’s programs and the savings of the artisans. Scarves range from $29 to $34 and are worn by women all over the world -- not only as a beautiful fashion statement but as an expres­sion of solidarity and support for refugees. See the whole collection at

The Maisha Collective has been featured on national fashion and lifestyle blogs including Martha Stewart, Daily Candy, Refinery 29 and Time Out Chicago. Corporations and foundations often purchase the scarves as gifts for their employees and supporters.


Sweeney co-founded Heshima Kenya in 2008. She brings a multi-di­mensional understanding of refugee protection and resettlement, combining her work with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, and positions in human rights agencies in Kenya and the United States. She has lived for extended periods of time in Nairobi and has traveled extensively throughout the region. A frequent speaker on the needs of refugee women and children, Sweeney was recently profiled in The Chicago Tribune. She lives with her husband in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago.

[Editor’s Note: Before May 3, Anne Sweeney is available for interviews, along with Zahara, a 23-year-old beneficiary of the Maisha Collective program who has her own line of scarves. Zahara recently relocated from Nairobi to Chicago and is preparing to start a job in a restaurant. A video about Heshima Kenya is available at]

Creating Pathways for Hope: The Success of our Community Leaders


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."

We Must Continue To Protect The Rights of Refugees in the Wake of the Westgate Terrorist Attacks

CHICAGO (October 7, 2013) – To date, dozens of people have lost their lives at the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi in a terrorist attack that is shocking in its brutality. Heshima Kenya deeply mourns the lives that were lost and strongly condemns these senseless acts of violence. We believe Kenya can and will emerge a stronger and more united country in the midst of this horrific tragedy.

The Heshima Kenya community has been shaken by these acts of violence against innocent civilians, who include those close to our Heshima family. Every day, our staff works tirelessly to serve the most vulnerable of the world’s refugees – young girls fleeing devastating violence and persecution, often without the support of family or friends. Our primary consideration is for the safety and wellbeing of Kenya’s refugees and the refugee girls Heshima Kenya serves. These acts of terror and brutality have not changed our steadfast commitment to ensure the security and protection of the courageous women and girls in our care.

50% of the young women and girls currently in our programs in Nairobi are of Somali nationality, many of which were forced to flee Somalia because of the very violence perpetrated by Al-Shabab within their own communities. It is a terrible irony that they must once again live in fear. “We trust that the Kenyan Government and its people will continue to protect the rights of immigrants and refugees that have fled this horrific violence and persecution, and look forward to being a helpful part of this dialogue process,” says Heshima Kenya’s Executive Director Anne Sweeney. Meanwhile, we mourn together the hundreds of victims of this tragedy, and stand united across lines of culture, nationality and faith towards a world free of violence and terror.

Media Contacts Anne Sweeney  +1 (773) 574-5548/[email protected]

Alisa Roadcup +1 (720) 352 5504/[email protected]

Voices from Nairobi on World Refugee Day

World Refugee Day

JUNE 20, 2013

In celebration of World Refugee Day, we would like to highlight Halima, a Heshima Ambassador who participates in our programs and serves as a project leader in the Maisha Collective. Many of the young women we support arrive  without a voice and Halima was no different when she fled Ethiopia and joined us in 2009. Today, we are proud to report that she and seven other young women are serving as peer mobilizers in our Junior Ambassadors Group. They lead workshops with other refugee girls and young women throughout Nairobi to share information about reproductive health and human rights, and other lessons they've learned from our Girls' Empowerment Project.

These young women are fostering a movement of leadership among their peers. With 11 million refugees worldwide, 80% of whom are women and children, leaders like Halima are committed to inspiring peace through education. This is Heshima Kenya’s vision in action, and we couldn’t be more proud. 

Please consider making a donation or purchasing a Maisha scarf today to celebrate these young women on World Refugee Day.


I am team leader at Heshima Kenya through the Maisha Collective and I attend the Girls’ Empowerment Program where I continue my studies. I was fortunate enough to be chosen among the seven girls who were trained on community mobilization. I participated in a three-month certification class that taught me how to mobilize and create awareness. 

I live in Eastleigh where many Ethiopian and Somali refugees live. I believed what better way to start than within my neighborhood. I therefore talked to three of my neighbors’ about the benefits of attending the training. The three called their friends and we made a group of 10 and I was able to start training them. All this took place at my humble home since it was convenient for all to attend.

The training kicked off with everyone discussing their expectations. I introduced myself and talked about what will be happening every time we met. This included the services offered by Heshima Kenya and other organizations and what topics would be covered through out the meetings. The age group is 14-27 with refugees who are Somali and Oromo. 

We discussed all the topics in the curriculum and conducted pre-and post evaluations to understand what the ladies learned from the session. I asked many of the ladies why they wanted to join the group and this is what they said: “I am very proud of what the women in the group are doing and learning for each other and that every women in the group has  inspired her in different ways.” Another lady said, “It’s eye-opening for me because I am 19 years old and have a new baby girl. When I see Halima waking up every morning to go to Heshima Kenya, she inspires me because of the woman and neighbor she is.” Another said, “If you educate a woman; you educate a generation.”

While leading trainings is inspiring, it also has its challenges. I have a lot of difficulty teaching about FGM [Female Genital Mutilation] because many of the women believe girls must undergo FGM and refuse to listen to the difficulties that come about because of it. I also taught them about STDs but I found that they were shy about this topic and they were not willing to talk too much. I think this is because they are not used to talking about STDs and in the past have not been given much information about them.   I’m confident they will open up as we become closer as a group.

Overall, I am encouraged by our women’s group and the discussions to come. It wasn’t easy the first time, but I met a lot of really good ladies. I am happy to each. There are many times we don’t understand each other, but I’m very happy to see that they are learning and opening up. As for Heshima Kenya, I am really blessed to be a part of this organization and it’s the best thing that has happened to me. I am very proud to become the leader that I am. 

Heshima Kenya at the 57th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women by Alisa Roadcup

 According to United Nations Women nearly 7 in 10 women across the world will experience violence in their lifetimes.  Each year, the UN hosts the Commission on the Status of Women (57th UNCSW) – the largest and most diverse gathering of its kind, bringing together advocates, scholars, policy-makers, and cultural and religious leaders to address the tremendous challenges, and promising opportunities for women and girls from around the world working to end violence against women.  The priority theme for this year was the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls, a theme foundational to the work of Heshima Kenya. 

 Sixty percent of the girls and young women that Heshima Kenya serves are survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, though this percentage is believed to be closer to eighty percent as many do not report incidents.  Many have fled from various forms of sexual exploitation, ranging from sex trafficking, prostitution, forced marriage, early pregnancy and female genital mutilation - leaving behind all that was familiar in pursuit of safety and security.  These traumatic situations are often heightened in war-torn countries, where rape is used as a weapon to torture, humiliate and control.  Despite these difficult beginnings, the girls and young women of Heshima have found new community, hope, and dignity – inspiring stories that Heshima Kenya was privileged to share at this year’s Commission. 

We were honored to present on a panel entitled, Women’s Leadership: Transforming Violence Against Women, comprised of experts, activists and academics working at the intersection of new media and non-profit communications. Heshima spoke to the importance of innovative media in building public awareness around the complex challenges and compelling stories of the urban refugee girls we support in Nairobi, Kenya. We shared how our new website provides a platform for the women and girls of Heshima to tell their own stories of survival and healing. We highlighted our Hope for Heshima campaign, our online newsletter which spotlights the resilience and courage of these girls, and links their stories to international human rights days focused on women’s issues – an excellent opportunity to connect Heshima’s girls to the struggle of women across the world.  You can receive the Hope for Heshima newsletters by signing up for updates on our homepage.

In addition, one particularly urgent theme at this year’s CSW was the need to fully educate and engage men in ending violence against women.  At a powerful panel gathering organized by, Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams rightly expressed that the vast majority of violence against women is carried out by men - there can be no real and lasting progress without the struggle and solidarity of men alongside us.  Thankfully there were a number of positive media campaigns led by men, or focused on engaging men and boys that we were introduced to at CSW including Ring the Bell, and the Man Up Campaign, that we look forward to learning from and partnering with into the future.   

CSW provided a sense of solidarity from women across lines of culture and faith that is difficult to find but once a year at the UN. We came away inspired by the tireless efforts of those who educate and put themselves at risk for a world free from violence. This is a rare opportunity for a global conversation that Heshima Kenya hopes to contribute to for years to come.


A Letter from the Executive Director, Anne Sweeney


Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once said, "There cannot be true democracy unless women's voices are heard. There cannot be true democracy unless women are given the opportunity to take responsibility for their own lives."

Today, March 8th, is International Women's Day. Around the world, people are celebrating the achievements made by women of the past, present, and future.  At Heshima Kenya, we inspire the women and girls in our program to contribute to the conversation with regard to their rights and to recognize that their dreams and hopes do matter.

As government elections take place in Kenya this week, our hope is for elected officals to grab hold of this opportunity to create more informed laws for the Kenyan people.  People lined up for hours, many at dawn, to cast a vote with the hope that their choices will ultimately result in a stronger economy, increased stability, and better education and health care for their families.

Coexistent to the elections is a controversial directive that the government issued last December forcing urban refugees to relocate to refugee camps.  This directive was targeted mainly at Somalis due to a series of violent incidents which occurred along the Somali border and in Nairobi this past year.  We at Heshima Kenya have been working diligently with our critical partner organizations to fight the directive which, as a result of these efforts, is currently held up in Kenyan court. Whether this action is backed by the full weight of the government's conviction or was merely a reactionary feint, we are optimistic that Heshima girls and others needing help in the future will be granted the right to remain in Nairobi and receive life saving support.

As we talk to activists, reporters, and government officials in Washington to share more about the conditions on the ground in Nairobi - and the special programs of Heshima Kenya - I am constantly reminded that the most articulate voice guiding our side of these conversations belong to the girls in our program themselves.  And it is because of their courage that we have been able to impact the conversation at an international level and the campaign to support their rights grows stronger.

This demonstration of courage is seen daily through girls like Fatuma Aden, an 18 year old aspiring journalist who is currently enrolled in our programs in Kenya. Though shot in the shoulder before coming to Heshima Kenya, two weeks ago we were able, through your support, to sponsor surgery for Fatuma with the goal of restoring functional mobility to her hand. Fatuma says that the first thing she wants to do when she can once again hold a pencil is write about her ideas and experiences.

These stories highlight only a small selection of the hardships and successes of the more than 400 girls and women, including their young children, who have participated in our programs since 2008. These are the young women we at Heshima Kenya celebrate and honor today, on International Women's Day. 

Help us celebrate - buy a scarf, make a donation, or simply share these stories.

Very warmly,



The Rights of Refugees Like Me

The essay below was written by 18 year old Salome, who fled the DR Congo in 2009 and eventually made her way to Nairobi in 2010. When she arrived at Heshima Kenya, she had experienced a great deal of trauma and had limited schooling. Today Salome is a dedicated student, loves to read and write, and is known by all as a considerate and helpful member of the Safe House. She is currently awaiting resettlement in the United States. She wrote this essay as an assignment in journalism class about the right to freedom of expression. The Rights of Refugees Like Me

My name is Salome and I am 18 years old. I ran away from my country, Congo, because of war. I came here without knowing where I was going. I had hope when I finally reached Kenya and I began to look for asylum. I was told I was going to be safe but life didn't happen like that. I was kidnapped by unbelievable people for a month and a half.

When I was kidnapped I thought I might die but I thank God I lived. Somehow, someone helped me to escape and took me to Heshima Kenya. Here I found people who have helped me with shelter, food, clothes, medicine and education. Now I am safe and secure.

One day I was watching the news and the government of Kenya said that all refugees should go to the camps! I felt so scared when I heard that. I wonder why the government has to do this to us.

We as refugees already face so much: discrimination, violence, hate speech, arrest, and sexual harassment. I didn't expect to be in Kenya or be a refugee. I didn't come here because I wanted to come. I was run out of my country with nowhere else to go.

I came to Kenya looking for safety in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I learned in class about Article 14. It says that everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution.

Sometimes I worry if I had to leave. How am I going to survive without my family or knowing anybody? In the camp I don't think the government will be able to protect girls like us.

I hope the government understands we don't have be degraded or punished just because we are refugees. We should be treated as equals and have recognition as people with rights.

Former Heshima Kenya Participant is 2013 Voice of Courage Honoree!

This year, at the Women’s Refugee Commission’s Voices of Courage Awards Luncheon on May 2, Dahabo Hassan Maow – a former Heshima Kenya participant - will be one of two women honored who are developing or leading programs that benefit refugee and displaced persons with disabilities. Each year, the Women's Refugee Commission honors leaders who are working on behalf of refugee, internally displaced, migrant and resettled women and young people. The organization selected Dahabo recognizing her as “a role model for the ability of persons with disabilities to live full lives.”

Orphaned as an infant in Somalia, Dahabo lost her leg after she was caught in crossfire at age 14. After being denied sufficient assistance at the Dadaab and Kakuma Refugee Camps in Kenya, she was eventually referred to Heshima Kenya.

It was Dahabo’s enthusiasm and leadership that inspired the creation of Heshima Kenya’s Maisha Collective, an entrepreneurship-training program where girls design, produce, and market a line of hand-dyed textiles, allowing them to begin earning and saving money.

Although Dahabo is now resettled in the United States, her designs are still produced in Nairobi and she continues to work with Heshima Kenya as a Maisha Collective Ambassador. You can find out more about Dahabo and watch a short video featuring her on our new website.

We are so proud of Dahabo and we hope you’ll join us on May 2nd to honor her achievement! You can find out more info about the event here.