Wrapped in Solidarity: The Maisha Collective

Joyful. Luminous. Radiant. Distinguished. Vivacious. Such adjectives describe every Maisha collective scarf, outshone only by the story -- and the woman -- behind it.
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Joyful. Luminous. Radiant. Distinguished. Vivacious. Such adjectives describe every Maisha collective scarf, outshone only by the story -- and the woman -- behind it.

The scarf I own was handmade by a Rwandan girl named Elizabeth. Like 50 percent of all the refugee girls Heshima Kenya serves, Elizabeth fled her country alone in 2008 after her parents were killed in the genocide. She traveled to Uganda, where she began living with a host family as house help. However, her journey was far from over. She was sexually assaulted, resulting in a pregnancy and after discovering this, her host family forced her out -- and she found herself homeless once again. Her situation is not unique -- approximately 88 percent of Rwandan girls are victims of sexual- or gender-based violence during their lifetimes. Elizabeth's beautiful baby boy, Kevin, was born with an array of complications -- he has cerebral palsy and is partially blind, deaf and epileptic. His medical needs made it difficult for them to find a safe home, receive education, or earn income. Their future seemed bleak until Elizabeth was referred to Heshima Kenya, where they moved into Heshima's Safe House. Elizabeth completed a 14-month apprenticeship where she learned how to make scarves and dutifully saved her stipend. This past March, her dream of living independently came true, and she and Kevin moved into a house of their very own. Joy radiates from her voice, and where there was once fear, now there is confidence and purpose.

Elizabeth's success is due, in many ways, to Dahabo Maow, Founder of Hehsima Kenya's Maisha Collective. Dahabo is a Somali refugee who lost her parents in the civil war. At the young age of 14, violence broke out in her village and she was caught in the crossfire. The violence cost Dahabo her leg, and she eventually fled Somalia. Three years, 750 miles and one refugee camp later, she arrived in Nairobi only to find no one would take her in. She was not able to stand in line for food or water due to her injuries. She cried every night worrying about her future, wondering how she could make changes to improve her situation.

Enter Heshima Kenya: Dahabo enrolled at the Heshima Safe House and received education and support in the Girl's Empowerment Project. Recognizing her extraordinary resolve and leadership potential, Heshima Kenya sponsored Dahabo in an artisan training program to learn how to tie-dye fabrics to make scarves. The Maisha Collective was born!

Every time I wear my Maisha scarf, I think of Dahabo and Elizabeth and their astounding courage, resolve and determination. It's humbling to know a piece of clothing offers such opportunity. Every compliment I receive on my scarf opens a conversation about the challenges refugee girls face and how words like "opportunity," "dignity," and "struggle" mean so much more to a refugee.

Dahabo and Elizabeth are not unusual: eighty percent of refugees are women and children and over 60 percent of those Heshima Kenya serves are victims of gender or sexual based violence. Twenty percent have been married against their will and 70 percent are illiterate. To the staff and girls of Heshima Kenya, these statistics aren't overwhelming or daunting as much as they are simply reality.

In February, I wore my scarf to an event where I had the pleasure of meeting Katelyn Pankoke, designer of Elaya Vaughn Bridal and contestant on Season 11 of Project Runway. Once again, the scarf proved a conversation starter about refugee rights and specifically how sewing can transform the life of a girl. As a designer, Kate was particularly touched by Dahabo's journey, as she understands the inspiration behind the name of this collection and the name of the organization (In Swahili, "heshima" means respect, honor and dignity and "maisha" means life). In Kate's words, "Sewing is such an empowering skill for women to have. It allows you to create something from nothing. Knowing that you have the power to make something that is completely unique, completely yours truly helps boost your self esteem and self worth." This sentiment was echoed by Elizabeth, who says "I was scared... then I finally said, let me try. Now, I'm proud of myself, and it's not scary because I'm not alone -- I still have Heshima Kenya."

Agreed, Elizabeth -- the world is a safer place because of Heshima Kenya. Let's help ensure they can continue their mission. A starter sewing kit is only $17, a scarf $38. But the impact is priceless.

You can help carry out Dahabo's dream of a world of goodness and courage and empower women like Elizabeth by donating through the RaiseForWomen campaign. Maisha Collective scarves, pillowcases, and clutches are available for purchase on Etsy.

Dahabo was resettled to the United States and just this month was honored with the Women's Refugee Commission 2013 Voice of Courage award. She lives in Minnesota, is now married and expecting her first child, and continues to be an ardent Maisha Collective Ambassador. Elizabeth and Kevin live in Nairobi and continue to receive support from Heshima Kenya.

The author, Nora Brathol, is a dedicated volunteer in Chicago's refugee community and serves as New Media Strategist to Heshima Kenya. You can follow her on twitter @NoraNoH8.

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