Twenty-two million. That’s the number of refugees worldwide living outside their home country. The U.S. has made efforts to combat this crisis, resettling over 3 million refugees since 1975, but giving refugees a safe place to call home is only the first step.

Founded in August of 2011, GirlForward began when founder Blair Brettschneider started to work with a refugee resettlement agency. Brettschneider noticed that girls especially had trouble accessing resources, and with all the refugees resettling in Chicago, GirlForward was born as a reaction to the community’s needs.

GirlForward aims to provide girls with better access to education and opportunities to explore and express their identities. Though GirlForward has evolved since its founding more than six years ago, its primary focus remains the same: building its programs around the interests of the girls, making sure they each have a voice to allow them to dictate how the programs run and change.

GirlForward offers three programs aimed at girls ages 14-22 years old:

  • The Mentoring Program pairs girls with mentors meant to serve as role models, friends, and someone to confide in. The ultimate goal of this program is for the girls to graduate high school, but it also aims to help them foster relationships, human connections, and mutual respect between themselves and their mentors.
  • The Safe Space Project provides designated safe spaces allowing girls access to resources like books, computers, and tutors, as well as opportunities to connect with other girls and explore their own identities. These safe spaces are open to any high school girl, regardless of her status in the U.S.¬†There are three in-school centers, as well one at the GirlForward headquarters located on Devon Avenue in Edgewater/Rogers Park.
  • Camp GirlForward is an academic summer program centered around English language learning with an emphasis on establishing community and encouraging social justice. Camp GirlForward is targeted towards girls coming to the U.S. as teenage refugees.

Ashley Marine, GirlForward’s Director of Girl Engagment, works as a manager dealing with program design and evaluation as well as working on the ground as a staff facilitator and, most importantly, collaborating with the girls served by GirlForward to continue to build programs and curriculums based on their interests and needs.

As one of GirlForward’s first staff members, Marine has witnessed the organization’s growth and evolution and has seen all that’s been accomplished. One of the accomplishments she’s most proud of is how the Chicago community has come together to support its girls and young women, and how the staff continues to challenge and be critical of larger systems of oppression. The most rewarding experience, Marine says, is seeing the girls express themselves and explore their identities by setting and achieving goals.

With programs already established in Chicago and Austin, Texas, as GirlForward looks to the future, there is talk of expanding to yet another city. Through this process, though, the emphasis remains on meaningful growth that includes the girls’ voices and lets them have a say.

 

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