We are facing the biggest refugee crisis in history – a crisis that is unavoidable and deals with how we think about humanity to its core. Who do we help? And how do we make that decision? What kinds of people are we ignoring? What are we willing to do for those who need our help? Unfortunately, with Trump in office, many are fearful of the answers to these questions and their implications regarding how we see refugees. We can sit around and hope for policy reform or we can make a change ourselves. That is what Blair Brettscheider decided to do. At the age of 22, Blair founded the organization GirlForward which seeks to build a community of support for refugee girls that have been displaced by conflict or persecution and create opportunities for them that they otherwise wouldn’t have. So, why refugee girls and women? Read our interview with Blair and find out.
MM: What is the history behind GirlForward? How did it begin?
Blair Brettschneider: I started GirlForward in 2011 after noticing the lack of support for adolescent girls who were coming to Chicago through the U.S. refugee resettlement program. I had been working and volunteering at a refugee resettlement agency and, in my time as a tutor in the youth program, got to know a girl whose family had resettled from Burundi. Our tutoring/mentoring relationship and the challenges she and other girls shared convinced me that a community like GirlForward was needed.
Where is GirlForward based? Where do your girls come from?
We are based in Chicago, IL and also operate in Austin, TX. Our girls represent over a dozen countries, but we see a considerable number of girls from Myanmar, Afghanistan, DR Congo, Rwanda, Syria, and Iraq.
Tell me more about your three programs and what they do for refugee girls: the Mentoring Program, Camp GirlForward, and the Safe Spaces Project.
- Our Mentoring Program pairs girls with mentors to engage in “4W” activities (Wellness, Wisdom, Wallet, and World) in order to explore their passions and graduate from high school.
- Camp GirlForward provides a space for girls to simultaneously build their English skills while exploring their identities and learning about the world around them.
- The Safe Spaces Project provides safe spaces for girls to explore their identities, connect with other girls, and access the resources they need.
“Every girl’s experience with GirlForward is slightly different…”
What other benefits does GirlForward provide besides these three programs?
Outside of our core programs, we offer leadership opportunities throughout the year. This year, for example, girls are creating a zine, and next year we hope to take our junior and senior girls on an overnight field trip.
What difficulties do these girls face?
Some of the biggest challenges are language barrier, limited/disrupted education, poverty, social isolation, trauma, and a need for role models.
What kind of improvements do you see in these girls?
Every girl’s experience with GirlForward is slightly different, and success could range from improving English skills during Camp GirlForward to learning better ways to communicate with teachers through the help of a mentor. Education is a large focus of ours, so we have been excited to see so many of our girls going on to college, but we’re equally excited when girls just come to GirlForward HQ after school and make new friends or connect with one of our tutors.
How many refugee girls join GirlForward a year?
Each year we serve about 200 girls total. We have grown each year, so it’s tough to say how many new girls join each year, but probably about 50 or more.
How long do the girls stay in the organization? What do they do after?
Girls can participate in our Mentoring Program through all four years of high school and for one year after. Our after-school programming is open to girls, even if they have graduated from high school. One hundred percent of our girls graduate from high school and many go to college or universities, and others enter career-focused programs.
What is the hardest part about your job?
I founded GirlForward when I was 22, and I have had to learn everything as I go. That’s definitely the hardest part!
What is your favorite part about your job?
It’s nearly impossible to answer this question because there are so many parts of it that I love. But I think my favorite part is getting to see the impact that GirlForward has on girls from the time they join to the time they graduate – not just in terms of academics or language, but more importantly in the relationships they form with mentors and the GirlForward community as a whole. I get a little misty-eyed any time I see one of our graduates post a photo on social media with her GirlForward mentor because they are still meeting and continuing their friendship, even after the program has ended.
“One hundred percent of our girls graduate from high school…”
What is the most difficult barrier GirlForward faces? How does the organization overcome it?
We work within a community that is always changing and in a time of a lot of uncertainty, particularly as it relates to politics. The specific needs and challenges of girls may change depending on their past experiences and where they are coming from, and we have to continuously educate ourselves about our community. We also are dealing with a political administration that is completely hostile to our community, spreading lies and inciting hate at every turn. In the past year, we have worked to mobilize our volunteers and community members to be active in speaking out to support our girls, families and community as a whole.
Can you tell me more about how women and girls are more vulnerable in times of crisis and the importance of having organizations such as GirlForward?
Women and girls face violence and discrimination every day, and in displacement, this threat escalates. Girls are also more likely lose access to/be kept out of school, so when girls arrive in the U.S., they usually have at least several years of gaps in their schooling. Some of our girls have never had the opportunity to go to school before resettling in the U.S. The combination of challenges that girls face require support designed according to their needs, and that is why GirlForward is important.
What kinds of bonds do the girls form with each other and with the staff?
We are a very tight-knit community and we see strong friendships form between girls, between girls and their mentors, and with our staff. I look forward to the afternoons so I can sometimes take a quick break from my laptop and Miriam can tell me my horoscope.
How can we get involved?
We post opportunities to volunteer, mentor, or donate at girlforward.org. Follow us on social media! We are on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. On our web site, please sign up for our newsletter. We often send out action items to support our community.
What advice do you have for others who might want to work with refugees?
Look up your local resettlement agency online. Check Idealist.org. See what opportunities they have and volunteer when/where you can. Most of these agencies – especially right now – are really stretched thin, so you have to be willing to contribute where they need you. That might mean stuffing envelopes or making phone calls, and not tutoring or helping a family one-on-one. Or it might! You just have to be willing to help where you’re needed. Most of all: whether you’re in high school and notice a new student or on a bus/train and see someone who might be navigating public transportation in your city for the first time, be kind and welcoming. Every single one of our girls has a story about her first day of school, and almost every single one includes a point at which she was lost/needed help and had trouble finding someone to help her. Even if you have trouble communicating, being kind goes a long way – just think of how you would want to be welcomed if you were in the same position.