Refugee girls like Hadeel and Sylvie connect with mentors and other refugee teens through local nonprofit GirlForward. Credit: Courtesy girlforward

When Tiruwerk was seven years old, the police came to her home in Khartoum, Sudan, and took her father away. “They sent him away for two weeks and they beat him a lot of times,” she wrote in the memoir I Remember . . . published through 826Chi. “I said that I wished that I was beaten and not my lovely daddy!”

According to the story, police took her father twice; the second time he was gone for three years, leaving Tiruwerk, her sister, her brothers, and her mother alone to fend for themselves. “We used to have a lot of animals like dogs, cows, sheep, and chickens, but we started selling them because we didn’t have enough money after my father left,” she continued. “Some of the animals were dying because they didn’t have enough food, so it was better to sell them.”

However after three years her father returned to take the family to a refugee camp, and in 2012 they all made the journey to the United States, settling on the north side of Chicago. Now Tiruwerk is 14 (“And a half!” she was quick to add when I spoke with her) entering her freshman year of high school, and her sister, Zamanei, is 17 and heading into her senior year. Despite their hardships and lack of a formal education, they are starting the school year with confidence thanks in part to their experience with local nonprofit GirlForward.

Full disclosure: I first heard of GirlForward when my childhood friend Emily Kane started working as a teacher at their summer camp this past year. Every time we spoke she was overflowing with stories of these strong young women and the strides they were making as they started their lives over in a new country; the exchange was always an emotional one because, much like Tiruwerk and Zamanei, the girls’ stories were often filled with loss, violence, and challenges that we never faced growing up in the United States.

Blair Brettschneider (now the executive director) started the organization in 2011 after working with a local refugee resettlement agency and realizing that teenage girls in particular could benefit from special attention. Ever since, GirlForward has focused on providing one-on-one mentorship programs, summer camp programs to prepare the girls for the school year, and a safe-spaces program to connect the girls to their community. The group’s annual fundraiser, Girl Jam, takes place this Sunday at Firehouse Chicago (1545 W. Rosemont), to help fund these programs.

According to Rikki Ray, development director, 100 percent of the funding is from donations by individuals and foundations; this summer alone they spent $6,000 on making sure girls could make it to the Rogers Park facility. Often there are large families who come over together and after paying rent have a monthly budget of $200 or less to continue supporting a household of six or more. “There was a girl who was very interested in joining the program, we went to her home and met with her mother who said, ‘OK, great!'” Ray said. “Then a few days later she called and said, ‘We went over our budget, and we don’t have enough money for the bus card to get there.’ So we are putting into our budget for next year more money for transportation.”

Talking with some of the girls in the program, it’s clear how important just being able to show up and interact with others who’ve had similar experiences can be. “GirlForward is a nice place, they helped me a lot,” Geraldine, a 15-year-old from Nambia, told me. “I was shy, I could not talk. At the end of the summer I started getting friends and learned English. I’m starting writing my own book.” She was inspired by their trip to 826Chi where she also wrote her own memoir about her life in a refugee camp where her father was a social worker.

The group of girls who participated in GirlForward's 2015 summer camp
The group of girls who participated in GirlForward’s 2015 summer campCredit: courtesy girlforward

Many of the girls’ stories are like Geraldine’s: they arrive at the first day of camp unable to speak English and nervous about approaching the other girls. According to Kane, it’s often the girls who end up teaching each other how to speak English, with more fluent girls connecting with newcomers with the same native language, immediately creating a connection among the group that they wouldn’t be able to find at a program like Big Brothers Big Sisters. After a summer’s worth of classes, field trips to local museums, and activities like Zumba and bicycling (a things some will have tried for the first time), the girls enter the school year with a new group of friends and an abundance of confidence. 

Now for many of the girls, the possibilities are endless. Tiruwerk and Zamanei are both pursuing a career in the medical field, something that would have been extremely difficult to achieve in their home country. “Here high school is free, but there school is expensive so some girls say they’re not going to school,” Zamanei said. “They stay home and help with their mom cleaning the house, they never go to school. After that when they grow up, they still don’t go to school, they get married or something like that. I was like, I don’t want to be like that. I want to go to school.”

While the girls will sometimes open up about the lives they and their families escaped, they’re mostly a joyous group, laughing and dancing to Taylor Swift as often as possible. In fact many of the girls are attending the Girl Jam fundraiser to not only read their stories from the 826Chi memoir, but more importantly to dance their hearts out to the girlcentric playlist provided by DJ Greg Feelgood. 

“We also deal with just normal teenage stuff,” Kane said. “Breakups and fights with parents; it was in those moments we remembered that despite all that these girls have experienced, their desire to live a normal teenage life was palpable.”

Girl Jam 2015, Sun 9/20, 4-7 PM, Firehouse Chicago, 1545 W. Rosemont,, $75.