Anne Sweeney doesn't shy away from a challenge.
"There are over 600,000 refugees in Kenya and over 100,000 refugees in Nairobi," says Sweeney, 35, executive director and co-founder of Heshima Kenya, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect and support refugee children and young women in Nairobi.
" 'Heshima' means respect (in Swahili)," Sweeney says. "When these refugees cross the borders (during a war), they don't have a right to education … (or) safe shelter; they've lost their families; they don't have documentation; and the police are against them. Women and girls are often tortured and raped. When you see this, you want to do all you can to help."
By providing education, shelter, outreach programs and other forms of support, Heshima Kenya, Sweeney says, has helped nearly 450 refugees stay in Kenya, return home or relocate elsewhere, including Europe, Australia and the U.S.
"We have girls from Ethiopia, Somalia, Congo, Rwanda (who) were born when these wars started," says Sweeney, who travels to Africa four times a year.
Raised in River Forest, Sweeney has been passionate about helping refugees since studying abroad in Kenya in 1998 when she was in college. She started forming a mission and model for Heshima Kenya with Talyn Good in 2007, and it was launched in 2008. (Good now serves on its board.) Funding comes from a variety of sources: foundations, the federal government, individuals and sales of hand-dyed scarves made by many of the young refugees.
Heshima Kenya has 39 employees, with offices in Chicago and Kenya. Sweeney lives in Andersonville with her husband, Peter Bowman, an architect. Following is an edited transcript.
Q: Why did you start Heshima Kenya?
A: I was a case manager at the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago in 2000 and I was resettling all these newly arrived refugees and finding them homes and finding them jobs. Then in 2001 in September, I bought a one-way ticket to Kenya with the hopes of getting a job through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. I got the job, and then I worked for them for about a year and a half and came back and got my master's in international relations (at American University).
I really wanted to help build an organization that focuses on peace building and … human rights and rebuilding, and long-term solutions for a problem that really has no solution. These girls and young women are not just refugees, they had their rights lost as soon as they crossed the border. Heshima is a safe community for them, by them, empowering them to negotiate their rights and to lead with a strong, confident voice.
Q: Do you ever feel like giving up?
A: Never. These women are all in it. This girl here (points to a photo), her name is Zahara. She was just resettled to Boston — she's been in a program (in Kenya) for four years. She's only 20 years old. We're hoping she will live with Dahabo in Minneapolis, who has one leg, who never knew her family, who was shot in the crossfire and found her way to Kenya and banged every day on the U.N. gates until she found Heshima when we started.
Q: What did you want to be when you were 13?
A: I always wanted to be a social worker. My parents were just really amazing, wonderful people. They were world travelers — especially my father. He started going with friends who were doctors to Guatemala. They would do these missions giving medical care to indigenous populations in the mountains, and every year he would bring a kid with him. So when I was a junior in high school he took me with him, and it just kind of changed my whole worldview of everything outside the United States.
Q: How do you recharge?
A: I turn off on the weekends. When you have good people working with you, it's easier to disconnect and trust. I spend time with my family and my husband and shut the computer down.
Q: What can these young women and girls teach the rest of us?
A: We learn patience and tolerance from their strengths and their courage. People will tell me after they hear some of these stories, "I can't believe I was complaining about my day. This gave me a different perspective." It's a reality check.
Q: How important is it to have a global awareness?
A: It's incredibly important. I don't think I was engaged in social issues this way before visiting Kenya in college. We educate and teach kids what we are doing because they are looking for pathways to inspire (them). I spoke at a local high school recently. They wanted to know more about what was going on in Kenya, and they were raising their hands, wondering, "Why don't we serve more?" and why we chose to develop programs the way we did. It was really inspiring to see them want to engage. Hopefully that is a memorable experience that they will carry with them forever.
Q: What can we do to help empower more young women and girls globally?
A: We need to do all we can to help them to feel confident and believe in their voice and let them know that what they say is important. And when they have that confidence, people will want to listen to them and hear what they have to say — and to not let their fear ignite them. It's not real if you're not scared. I was always the one in the classroom who never spoke. I have huge anxiety. So getting the word out there, and having to publicly speak, that's taken a lot of courage. But it's not about me, it's about them. If I don't do it, then who will?
Go to Heshima Kenya's website, heshimakenya.org, for more information. There's also a link to its Etsy shop, which it sells its handcrafted scarves (one of which Sweeney is wearing in the photo); sales support the organization.
"This year, I'm going to engage in my own creative passions, so I'm going to take a pottery class," Anne Sweeney says. "I find myself collecting pottery in every country I go to. I love it. I (took pottery) in high school so I'm excited to do it again."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun