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Alisa Roadcup: ‘Young Women Come to Us Completely Broken’

Once known as a refugee-friendly nation, Kenya is becoming more resistant to taking in people who have been forced to flee their homes. That means added challenges for the nonprofit Heshima and the refugee girls it supports, says executive director Alisa Roadcup.

Written by Odharnait Ansbro Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Women at Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp. Changes in Kenya's policies are making it harder for people to find refuge in the country, meaning more work for organizations like Heshima, which supports unaccompanied girl refugees with healthcare, education and training. AFP/Tony Karumba

Raised in Boulder, Colorado, by a “very conservative evangelical family” filled with people trying to make the world a better place, Alisa Roadcup grew up surrounded by both passionate altruism and patriarchal attitudes. “I felt my voice was not heard or respected, and that was something that made me angry,” she says. Later, she was drawn to fighting for women’s rights “because I wasn’t offered the opportunity to live up to my full potential as a young woman.”

Now Roadcup is executive director of Heshima Kenya, the first nonprofit organization in Kenya to provide services specifically for unaccompanied minor refugee girls from across Africa, the majority of whom have experienced sexual and gender-based violence. The organization provides a “holistic model” of care that includes food and shelter, education, child care and legal and medical support, while also advocating for the rights of refugees in Kenya. Since its founding in 2008, Heshima has provided support to over 3,000 girls and their children.

Women & Girls recently spoke with Roadcup about collaboration, the power of entrepreneurship and the consequences of closing the Dadaab refugee camp.

Women & Girls: Why does Heshima focus on the holistic approach to caring for unaccompanied refugee women?

Alisa Roadcup: [Our cofounders] realized early on that we could provide one area of support to thousands of individuals or thousands of areas of support to each individual. Within our first few months we saw that there was a spectrum of needs, from the most basic – food, shelter and safety – to higher education and support for young women who want to become entrepreneurs and leaders within their communities.

The model developed organically through collaborating with the young women we serve and listening to their needs and feedback on their experience in the program. Each of our specific programs was custom-created based on their needs. It’s a more challenging approach, but we’ve learned over the last eight years that when a young woman feels safe, has her basic needs met and access to education and therapy, and the ability to provide for herself, her potential is unlimited.

Women & Girls: What kinds of results have you seen?

Roadcup: Young women come to us completely broken and alone, and we see a powerful transformation in their lives as they become leaders in their own right. I go back to Kenya every three to four months, so I can clearly see the girls’ healing and recovery process. One of our program participants is Chantal, a Congolese girl who was born with a physical disability that made it difficult for her to walk. Before she arrived in Nairobi, she had been held hostage by Congolese militia as a “wife” and she became pregnant. A few weeks before she came to Heshima, she had given birth to a daughter.

The first time I met her, in March 2015, I was so struck by the cloud of sadness that surrounded her. She was withdrawn. She wouldn’t make eye contact and would rarely speak. She wasn’t comfortable holding her own baby because she wasn’t able to. The other girls in our program and our staff jumped in to support her; they would even carry her baby.

When I came back a few months later, this young woman came running up to me with beautifully braided hair, pink lip gloss and this gorgeous light smile, and I didn’t even recognize her as Chantal. She was laughing with the other girls and she was strong and fully mobile. She told me that she wants to become a counselor so she can support other vulnerable young women who were in her situation.

Being part of a community, knowing that she wasn’t alone, that she wasn’t the only one who has had a traumatic experience, and seeing other girls ahead of her who have their own businesses and are genuinely happy, really contributed to her recovery. We find this with all of the girls who come through our programs.

Women & Girls: Are the girls able to build a life in Nairobi once they graduate from the Heshima program?

Roadcup: Most of the refugee girls in our programs long to be resettled in Kenya. The global average of refugees who are resettled is less than 1 percent. At Heshima, 25 percent of girls are resettled because we have a team pushing for their cases and we help them get access to the resources they need to advocate for themselves. We’ve seen them face many barriers in establishing a new life, and the opportunity to earn an income and potentially start their own small business has been critical to overcoming those challenges.

On the books, the government of Kenya provides work permits to refugees but, in 2014, only seven work permits were granted in a country with hundreds of thousands of refugees. So there’s a tremendous need to empower these women economically in a climate where it’s nearly impossible for refugees to work legally. That’s what the Maisha Collective [a scarf-making social enterprise launched by Heshima] does. We give young women the opportunity to learn creative and entrepreneurial skills and earn a programmatic stipend while doing so.

Women & Girls: What is the current attitude towards refugees in Kenya?

Roadcup: There have been a number of directives from the Kenyan government that have dictated specific actions to advocacy organizations [for refugees and asylum seekers]. In 2012, they stated that all refugee agencies had to halt provision of services to refugees because they were concerned that they could be harboring terrorists. That’s been an issue for a number of years since. Our advocacy team works closely with the Urban Refugee Protection Network, a group of organizations who fight for the advancement of refugee rights in Kenya. Heshima wasn’t affected [by the directive], but two staff members from the Danish Refugee Council were arrested, and there were other instances of violence, xenophobia and extortion against [refugees and] Somali girls, especially.

The [decision to close] the Dadaab refugee camp didn’t come as a surprise to us. The closure has been delayed by six months on humanitarian grounds, but there is an ongoing effort and a campaign to repatriate Somali refugees back to Somalia. We’ve heard that some of the Dadaab refugees might be relocated to Kakama, another large refugee camp in Kenya. We anticipate that if they’re not given adequate protection in the camp, asylum seekers in Kakama will come into urban centers, and we’re planning for that accordingly.

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