Did you know: Texas resettles more refugees than any other state? In 2014, Texas welcomed 12,800 refugees from all over the world from countries in turmoil, like Iraq, Cuba, Somalia, and Burma. 11% of all refugees who fled to the United States came to Texas, and of that, Austin resettled 12%.
When escaping war, persecution, or natural disaster, many people bring with them their children in hopes of a safer and more prosperous life. In Austin, there are many programs that assist families transitioning into American life. The most recent organization to join this suite of services isGirlForward.
GirlForward provides adolescent refugee girls with individual mentorship, educational programs and leadership opportunities, creating a community of support that empowers them to be strong, confident, and independent. Their vision is a future where strong and confident refugee girls will become independent women who can successfully support themselves, their families, and their communities.
In January of 2016, GirlForward launched their Texas chapter and welcomed to their team Patricia Hagen, their new Program Manager. Having studied the Syrian refugees crisis while at the London School of Economics and University of Cape Town’s joint program in Cape Town, and being a volunteer at Casa Marianella, Patricia has a deep understanding of refugee needs. We had the opportunity to sit down with her to learn more about her passion and the organization.
How does GirlForward provide refugee girls with mentorship?
To be sensitive of cultural needs, our mentoring is all home-based. We meet once a week for two hours and establish a relationship with the family. We meet everyone where they are.
Our mentoring program follows a specific curriculum developed by our Director of Programs, Ashley Marine. After we have built trust with the family through our home visits, we start going on field trips, engage in group discuss, and practice new skills, like learning goal setting or how to ride a bike. We also engage in activities focusing on the 4 Ws, “wisdom,” “wallet,” “wellness,” and “world”. Every month we hit one “W” at least once and the girls get points for activities.
The idea is, while the girl is getting support, she can explore other parts of life and her community. It’s pretty cool! When else in your life will have you have one person standing behind you supporting your goals?
What are the biggest challenges these girls face?
The biggest challenges these girls face are poverty, isolation, disrupted education, language, and literacy. The language barrier is the biggest by far and many are faced with the responsibility to translate for their families.
Some of our girls have specialized knowledge or a high level of education. I imagine it must be so frustrating for them to be put into a math class, for example, and know the math but be unable to communicate that knowledge because of a language barrier.
What are the girls’ biggest strengths?
These are the most resilient and highly motivated girls I have ever met….ever. They are brave and willing to take risks. The girls always seem to be able to find the bright side in any situation. They volunteer to be part of GirlForward and I can see their high level of dedication and appreciation.
Tell me about a project or story that you’re most proud of.
There are so many stories!
One of our first mentees was a 16 year old from Burma. She was part of our summer pilot camp and was so eager to get a mentor. She finally got paired with one in January. It’s like they were made for each other. It’s so sweet! It’s been so amazing watching their relationship grow and blossom. One of our volunteers, Alex, was able to get two tickets to SXSW’s Michelle Obama event and gave the tickets to this mentee-mentor pair.
The mentee was delighted! “This is the best moment of my life!” she said. She cried with joy afterwards. Now, she’s politically engaged and aware about the plight of minorities in Burma. She told me that she’s looking forward to day she can vote.
Another story that I love comes from our speed mentoring day at Vuka. We had motivational speakers and Texas State Representatives work one-on-one with the girls on interview skills, career development and resume building. One of the participants was a 16 year old from Congo. After the session, she went home and found out that her mom had an interview the next day at a laundromat and was working on her resume. She got so excited! “I got this!” she said and helped her mom prepare. Her mom nailed her interview!
That’s why we focus on girls because once you educate them, you educate the family and the community at large.
How did you get involved with GirlForward?
I finished my BA at St. Edward’s University last year and every day after graduation, I went on Idealistand searched for, “Refugees + Austin + Jobs.” That’s how I found out that GirlForward was hiring! I was holding out for a job where I could provide direct services to this population that goes beyond the immediate needs of resettlement. Refugees are resettled into poverty and I am drawn to programs which are designed to alleviate that hinderance, which I think GirlForward does.
What has it been like working with GirlForward?
Working at GirlForward has been a dream. I joke that if I ever have to switch careers, it’s going to be a constant disappointment because this one has been so great. I get to sit behind the scenes and plan, I get to go to girls’ homes and meet their families…I knew I would love working with mentees but I found that I really enjoy working with mentors too. It’s really rewarding and I get to meet wonderful women in the city who want to help.
It’s a great organization and I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of it.
Why did you choose to join Impact Hub Austin?
We chose Impact Hub to work out of because Anna Duke recommended it. She’s on our board. We took a tour and couldn’t believe our eyes. It’s gorgeous. Our response was, “Yes, absolutely yes.” It was a really wonderful place to be as we were launching.
As I was the only employee here in Austin, it was so refreshing to walk into a room and see people that I recognized and to say, “Hi” to. I liked the camaraderie; the friendships I’ve formed here are wonderful. It’s cool that everyone here is doing something interesting and I’ve been able to meet people from all different fields. Being here helped me not be lonely.
Impact Hub took care of GirlForward this year; that would have been unmatched anywhere else. We’ve hosted most of our mentor trainings out of the Vuka space. Our girls are just learning about what work life is and being exposed to such a unique space stretches their imaginations. It’s really cool because no other place I’ve worked out of has been so warm or decorated so nicely. When we invite volunteers into the space, it puts people at ease and inspires them. “Wow, this place is so cool,” they say.
Want to get involved with GirlForward? There are several ways!
Mentorship: Mentorship applications open in January.
Volunteering: Email ProgramsATX@GirlForward.org to join their volunteer database
Donation: They’re always looking for donations!