Giving Girls a Second Chance at Education

This article first appeared on the Women & Girls Hub from News Deeply

A fast-track learning program in India is being scaled up to help 3 million young girls across developing countries stay in school. Udaan, a residential school for students aged 11-14, helps girls study instead of work or marry.

Teacher Maheshwari Verma (back left) works with Maya, 11, during language class at the Udaan Accelerated Learning Camp for girls near Hardoi, India, on Sept. 9, 2014. Photo by Erin Lubin/CARE

As the oldest of five children, 15-year-old Laxmi Pal grew up caring for her siblings and doing household chores in the rural Indian village of Kodanna in Uttar Pradesh, while her mother was out cleaning houses and her father struggled to find seasonal work on farms. But three years ago, Laxmi became the first member of her immediate family to attend school. Nine months later, she graduated from fifth grade and enrolled in a government secondary school to continue her education.

Like many adolescent girls growing up in rural India who never start or finish primary school, Laxmi envisaged a future of domestic work and early marriage. But instead, she was given a second chance at education through a fast-track learning course run by nonprofit organization CARE.

CARE’s Udaan program (Udaan means “to soar” in Hindi) compresses several years of primary school curriculum into nine months of accelerated learning. Launched in India in 1999, the Udaan residential school offers girls aged 11-14 the chance to quickly complete their education. The program is highly interactive, featuring learning by doing, educational games and group projects to keep the students engaged.

In addition to teaching language, math and environmental science, Udaan teachers help girls learn to question discriminatory practices and beliefs within their villages. Teachers also integrate activities such as morning assembly, where girls gather before class to recite poems, sing songs and perform skits. In their free time, girls play sports and learn to ride bicycles. (The latter is a skill that’s especially important, since the distance to schools is a major hindrance to girls’ education in rural India.)

Students of the Udaan Girls School work on a group exercise. The curriculum includes language, math and environmental science. Udaan teachers also interweave activities such as morning assembly, sports (volleyball, soccer), bicycle riding and computer skills. (Allen Clinton/CARE)

Students of the Udaan Girls School work on a group exercise. The curriculum includes language, math and environmental science. Udaan teachers also interweave activities such as morning assembly, sports (volleyball, soccer), bicycle riding and computer skills. (Allen Clinton/CARE)

Since CARE started Udaan with local partner Sarvodaya Ashram, more than 95 percent of the girls enrolled have passed the fifth-grade exam. Since 2011, the Udaan model has been rolled out to Odisha and Bihar states; in 2013, an Udaan school opened in theMewat district in Haryana state, approximately two hours from Delhi.

According to CARE, just one year of secondary education correlates to a 15 to 25 percent increase in future wages for young women.

At the United State of Women Summit in June, CARE announced a$15 million rollout of the Udaan Second Chances program as part of the U.S. government’s Let Girls Learn initiative. Launched by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in March 2015, the initiative is aimed at the estimated 62 million girls globally – half of them adolescents – who are not in school.

Over the next five years, the Udaan program will expand to reach 3 million girls across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malawi, Mali, Nepal, Pakistan and Somalia. The program is supported by the U.S. government, ministries of education in individual countries, corporations, foundations and local partner organizations.

CARE argues that when girls are educated, all of society benefits. “Girls who attend school tend to delay marriage and pregnancy, are less vulnerable to disease, and are more likely to increase their own earning power for life,” said Joyce Adolwa, CARE’s director of girls’ empowerment, at the United State of Women Summit.

Brian Feagans, director of communications at CARE, says the program seeks to address lack of access to a relevant education for adolescent girls who are out of school or at risk of dropping out. “It helps them catch up through accelerated learning models and then transitions them back into schools at higher primary or lower secondary levels,” he says. “This is a comprehensive package of interventions that converge around education to create an integrated approach to girls’ empowerment.”

Udaan schools have been deliberately placed in the most disadvantaged areas, where the educational status, particularly for girls, is extremely low. Using the successful results of this model, CARE has advocated for the Indian government to adapt the Udaan curriculum into its state-run schools. Government teachers have been trained on the Udaan approach. This scale-up has helped change the future trajectory of thousands of girls, says Feagans.

Having been through the program, Laxmi now dreams of becoming a teacher. “If I didn’t go to Udaan, I would have been cleaning houses with my mom and soon married off,” she says. “Being at Udaan allowed me to dream about my future for the first time.”

 

The App Helping Africa’s Midwives Save Lives

This article first appeared on the Women & Girls Hub from News Deeply

A mobile health project in Ethiopia gives any health worker with a smartphone access to the information they need to deal with emergencies during childbirth. Now it’s being scaled up to reach 10,000 health workers across Africa and Southeast Asia by 2017.

A midwife at Gimbi Health Center in West Wellega, Ethiopia, uses the Safe Delivery App to help her carry out an examination on a patient. Photo by Mulugeta Wolde

For Ethiopian mother Mitike Birhanu, the birth of her twins almost ended in tragedy. She was unconscious when the second of her babies was delivered, and the newborn seemed lifeless. But her midwife quickly consulted an app on her smartphone, diagnosed the problems, and used emergency procedures to save both Mitike’s life and that of her child.

Every year, over 300,000 women globally die from pregnancy-related causes, and over 5 million babies die during birth or within the first weeks of their lives. Yet the vast majority of maternal and newborn deaths could be prevented if health workers attending births had better emergency skills and knowledge.

Many health workers in low- or middle-income countries work in environments where there is no electricity or running water. But one thing they do have is smartphones.

The Safe Delivery App (SDA) was created as a simple tool for health workers such as midwives and nurses to access basic emergency obstetric and neonatal care skills. Developed by Danish NGO Maternity Foundation in collaboration with the University of Southern Denmark and the University of Copenhagen, the app aims to train and instruct birth attendants on how to manage potentially fatal complications during pregnancy and childbirth.

Based on global clinical guidelines, the SDA contains four basic features: animated instruction videos, action cards, a drug list and practical procedure instructions. The five- to seven-minute videos teach lifesaving skills such as how to stop a woman bleeding after birth or how to resuscitate a newborn. When there is no time to watch the full video, the action cards give clear, essential recommendations and immediate care information – such as how to mix an alcohol-based hand rub.

The SDA is free to download from Google Play and the App Store. And it can be preinstalled on phones, so once it’s downloaded, users don’t need a network connection or internet access to view the videos or other features.

Meaza Semaw, project coordinator at the Ethiopian Midwives Association, says the app is ideal for places like Ethiopia, where women’s access to quality maternal health services is challenging, especially if they experience complications in birth. “The Safe Delivery App is a great tool to improve maternal health in Ethiopia. Most midwives, if not all, have a mobile phone, so accessibility is very high,” she says. “The app is easy to use because it is supported by animations and videos. In addition, it uses local languages.”

With the support of the MSD for Mothers program, the first four of the app’s 10 videos were tested in a one-year, randomized controlled trial across 78 facilities in Ethiopia during 2014. Results show users’ skills in handling most common complications such as postpartum hemorrhage and newborn resuscitation more than doubled after 12 months of using the app.

The app was officially launched in April 2015, and a year later was chosen by the Women Deliver conference as an example of how a partnership-based innovation can help end maternal and newborn mortality. SDA is now currently in use in Kenya, with plans to roll out to Guinea, Sierra Leone, Myanmar, Laos and India in the coming months.

So far, the app has been funded with help from over $50,000 in donations through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, and Maternity Foundation is working with partners in individual countries to fund the translation and rollout of the app. The hope is to be able to fulfill the commitment Maternity Foundation made to the U.N.’s Every Woman Every Child to reach 10,000 health workers with the app by the end of 2017, so ensuring a safer birth for 1 million women.

At Wollega University in Ethiopia, student midwives use the app during training. (Mulugeta Wolde)At Wollega University in Ethiopia, student midwives use the app during training. (Mulugeta Wolde)

Maternity Foundation CEO Anna Frellsen says the organization is working in partnership with governments, midwives’ associations and larger NGOs to achieve its goal. “We really want to see the app integrated as part of the existing health system in countries, and we are starting to engage with the [health] ministries and stakeholders in each country to find out how it can be used and adapted,” she says.

The Ethiopian Midwives Association is currently working on integrating the SDA into its ongoing training program. Frellsen hopes other health organizations in participating countries will do likewise.

There is also a new version of the app in the works, which will feature quizzes and a test (rewarded by a certificate) to “push” learning to the user and make the experience more interactive.

Frellsen says one of the key components of Maternity Foundation’s “backbone” support for its partners will be disseminating learning around the SDA and mobile health in general. “We are looking at how we can publish some of the learning for sharing with others who would like to use the app, but also more broadly as a case for how to scale up an mHealth [mobile health] tool,” she says.

In western Ethiopia’s Gimbi rural district, the midwife who saved Mitike’s life says the Safe Delivery App has already made her better at her job. “I am confident that from what I have learned from the app, I can stop [a mother] bleeding,” says Yane Ababaw. “I can save her life.”

A Future in Code: Building Life Skills in Syria

This article first appeared on the Women & Girls Hub from News Deeply

Motivated by a desire to rebuild Syria’s devastated economy, enterprising young women in the war-torn country are turning to tech to help others of their generation find employment – and better futures.

Leen Darwish, right, developed her Arabic-language platform Remmaz to address the gap in non-English-language programming resources that are available to Arab communities. Photo by UNFPA Syria/Ghassan Ahmad

 

For the past five years, 22-year-old Syrian student Leen Darwish has seen her country ruined by bombings, battles and one of the biggest population displacements in modern history. But determined to help rebuild the nation’s economy for her fellow young people, Darwish – a computer science undergraduate at the University of Damascus – has launched an award-winning, Arabic-language app to help young people in Syria, and beyond, learn to code.

Just six months since its launch, Darwish’s Remmaz app already has over 5,000 active users learning to code, design websites and develop apps (application programs) on the platform she and her business partner started developing while they were second-year university students. Their aim is to create an accessible, Arabic online learning MOOC (massive open online course) to address the lack of non-English programming resources available to Arab communities, particularly young people looking for employment in conflict-scarred Syria.

Darwish and her team are in the process of crunching the data to find out more about Remmaz’s users. However, they already know that most are based in Morocco and aged between 20 and 23 – university-age students looking for work opportunities, she suggests.

“Remmaz is a startup whose mission is to make an evolution in online learning about programming in the Arab world, to empower people to learn about cutting-edge technology tools through Arabic content, in an easy and accessible way, to let them be qualified for a job opportunity in one of the highest-paid jobs – programming,” says Darwish.

The conflict in Syria has created 5 million refugees and internally displaced a further 13.5 million residents – a total of 18.5 million people forced from their homes in a country that, before the conflict began, had a population of 23 million. Secondary education has dropped by 44 percent, causing an estimated economic loss of over $10 billion – equivalent to nearly 18 percent of the national GDP.

Darwish launched Remmaz after attending a three-week training course in December 2015, supported by the UNFPA’s Innovation Fund, on how to start and manage a small business. She initially heard about the course through her startup incubator. Having developed her idea, she was keen to gain some commercial skills and make contacts.

“I began my startup when I was in the second year of university, so I lacked business knowledge and entrepreneurship culture,” she says, speaking from her adopted city of Damascus; she left her home town of Harasta when the conflict made it untenable for her family to remain there. “This program was a great opportunity, as the mentors and trainers have 20 years of real experience in this field, which was really important for me.”

People taking part in the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) program, run in partnership with local NGOs, ranged from 22 to 30 years of age and came from different ethnic groups and regions. Like Darwish, they had been displaced by the conflict in Syria. Nearly 200 people applied for 28 places; 20 of the 28 were women.

Through lectures, workshops and mentoring, participants were supported as they worked to fine-tune their plans and develop their tech-based small businesses. Delivered by enterprise experts, the training covered marketing, accounting, business planning, communications and leadership skills.

At the end of the course, 17 projects were chosen for further UNFPA support. Along with Remmaz, they included computer maintenance, after-school programs and online computer games. More recently, Remmaz won an entrepreneurship competition for Syrian startups, taking a $15,000 prize that will go towards expanding the app, says Darwish.

Bruce Campbell, UNFPA global coordinator for the organization’s Data for Development platform, says the program helps “to improve the resilience of Syrian young people by supporting them with critical life skills and strengthening their ability to cope with difficult circumstances.”

But he acknowledges that the program has had its challenges, from the high volume of applicants to the limited ability to travel throughout the country, making it difficult to expand the project.

Of the 28 students on the UNFPA's startup training course, 20 were women. (UNFPA Syria)Of the 28 students on the UNFPA’s startup training course, 20 were women. (UNFPA Syria/Ghassan Ahmad)

Based on the innovation program’s success in Damascus, UNFPA has since rolled out the training to two more Syrian governorates, Homs and Tartous. Campbell hopes it will continue to scale up in Syria, with the ambition of rolling out the program over two years.

“The program encourages young people to submit projects jointly, supporting them to become comfortable working together across ethnic divisions,” he says. “For example, it would not be uncommon to see young people from Aleppo sending textiles to youth in Tartous, and young people from Tartous sending IT equipment to counterparts in Aleppo.”

After graduation this summer, Darwish plans to take a master’s degree in artificial intelligence and organize “hackathons” in collaboration with UNFPA and Damascus Girl Geeks. But she remains focused on her vision for Syria. “Big businesses are closing and the problems we are facing only young people can solve,” she says. “The need for startups and entrepreneurship culture is really essential for Syria.”

After the Nepal Earthquake, Weaving Brings Wealth

One year on from a devastating earthquake, a group of young Nepalese women are using an age-old craft as a new way to support their families and boost the local economy.

Ramita Gole (left) and Nirmala Lungeli Magar from the Panchakanya group. Photo by UNDP/Rapid Enterprise and Livelihood Recovery Project (RELRP)

 

Belimaya Ginel Magar and a handful of other young women from the village of Kapilakot in southeastern Nepal had just finished a training course in traditional Dhaka cloth weaving when the worst earthquake in the country’s recent history struck on April 25, 2015.

The 7.8-magnitude quake flattened the women’s village. But Belimaya and her fellow weavers refused to let the disaster quash their dreams of using their new skills to earn a living. One year on, their Panchakanya Micro Entrepreneurs Group is among the hundreds of new and thriving small businesses helping to regenerate Nepal’s economy.

Last year’s earthquake and subsequent aftershocks in central Nepal left around 9,000 people dead, more than 22,000 injured and millions homeless. There was significant damage to small enterprises and markets – up to 90 percent in the most affected areas, with small farms, artisanal products and tourism services among the worst hit.

Belimaya and her coworkers from the Dhamile Village Development Committee (VDC) of Sindhuli District are among the more than 80 percent of Nepal’s population living in rural areas. Income-earning opportunities are scarce, which has resulted in a huge exodus of the productive workforce – predominantly young men – to India, the Gulf states and beyond. Women (along with children and older people) remain in the villages and are responsible for taking care of their families.

Belimaya, 26, cares for her two elementary-school-age children while her husband works in Qatar. Before the earthquake, she was excited to hear about the chance to learn a new income-earning skill through the Micro-Enterprise Development Programme(MEDEP) – a scheme set up in 1998 by the government of Nepal and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and currently funded by the Australian government to encourage employment opportunities.

“One year back, we did not have any skills to make money. We had plenty of leisure time after sending the kids to school,” Belimaya said. “The training to make Dhaka clothes came as an opportunity to start a business. The training boosted our confidence to set up the microenterprise. We believed that this business would change our life.”

For centuries, Nepal’s craftspeople have woven the pure cotton cloth known as Dhaka. Still produced by hand loom with traditional designs, modern Dhaka is used to create everything from saris and shirts to bed sheets and table mats. This unique weaving style is one of Nepal’s most recognizable and commercially popular handicrafts.

Belimaya was among a group of 10 women to embark on a three-month weaving training course run by MEDEP in 2015, beginning just before the earthquake and ending when the frequent aftershocks subsided.

When the earthquake struck, she and four fellow trainees were in the process of setting up a weaving workshop. “The quake fully damaged our bamboo-made cottage [workshop],” said Belimaya, now chair of the Panchakanya group. “A few weeks after the earthquake, we rebuilt a makeshift [one].”

But as their homes were far from the workshop, Belimaya and her colleagues were spending an entire day traveling to their new workplace. “So we decided to rent around Kapilakot,” she said. “We had to leave home and shift to a new place, along with children. But we were determined to do this.”

And that was not the only challenge that these women faced. “Disbelief upon our initiative… was most discouraging for us,” said Belimaya, referring to the reaction from local people to the group’s devotion to building the workshop and starting a business.

 

Weavers had to build a bamboo house to create a workshop in their village. (UNDP Nepal)Weavers had to build a bamboo house to create a workshop in their village. (UNDP Nepal)

When villagers saw these women – most of whom were under 25 at the time – cutting and laying bamboo, digging small holes and fixing sticks, they presumed that they were building homes for earthquake victims or constructing poultry farms.

“Initially, nobody believed in us. Many men assumed that we girls would not be able to build a cottage by ourselves. They said we were wasting our time. But we showed them,” said Suntali Maya Ghalan, another member of the Panchakanya group.

The women began building their bamboo cottage in October 2015. Within a week, they had built a modest cottage with a tarpaulin roof, at a cost of 1,500 Nepalese rupees ($14) funded by the VDC office and a local cooperative. This inspired three more women to join the group, bringing the total to eight members.

Through the Rapid Enterprise and Livelihoods Recovery Project(RELRP), another UNDP-administered scheme funded by the Australian government and launched in June 2015, the Panchakanya group received a week-long Dhaka weaving refresher course. Three members visited Tanahun District in central Nepal for an additional three-month advanced weaving course, funded in part by the Nepal government’s program for small business regeneration.

The group funded and set up seven manual weaving machines before formally launching their enterprise in October 2015. Their products – sold at local markets – include kurtas (traditional loose shirts), handkerchiefs, coverlets, hats, shawls, blouses and ties. Members invest their profits to scale up their business and have started a monthly savings program with a local cooperative.

Belimaya is delighted with Panchakanya’s success, which has seen the group grow to 25 active members who each receive an income of around $90 to $140 per month from sales of their Dhaka products.

“The amount covers most of the expenses of our daily life. We pay rent, fulfill daily needs and pay our children’s school fees as well,” said Belimaya, adding that the enterprise has earned members respect from their husbands and other family members.

“These women have shown such promise within such a short time,” said Indra Hyau, district coordinator of RELRP in Sindhuli. “RELRP is currently supporting the construction of a common facility center for them to work in a safer environment. We are very impressed with their dedication.”

Over 8,000 women have been able to restart their businesses through the support of UNDP/RELRP and 1,400 new women entrepreneurs have been created, earning as much as $90 per month.

With Nepals youth unemployment at an all-time high, self-sufficient entrepreneurs such as the Panchakanya members are role models for others in their village.

“Those who were discouraging us in the beginning were curious to send their daughters to our enterprise for learning. Now, the villagers extend support towards us and treat us with respect. We hope that more women will join us and more women will be empowered in the remote villages,” Belimaya said.

“Today, we don’t have to wait for our husbands to send money from the Gulf countries. We are able to manage on our own.”

 

The Quiet Crisis of Europe’s Pregnant Refugees

This article first appeared on the Women & Girls Hub from News Deeply

Around one in 10 women refugees traveling through Europe is pregnant. Better coordinated approaches from states and NGOs are urgently needed to keep women and their newborn babies safe and well.

More mobile clinics and specialist services are needed for pregnant refugees crossing Europe

Tehmina was traveling through Greece from Syria when she went into labor. However, the first-time mother was determined to continue her journey and have her baby once she reached Germany. Finally, her family convinced her to go to the hospital and she agreed to give birth in Greece. Just hours later, Tehmina and her newborn left the hospital and continued to walk.

Her story is by no means unique. For the first time since the refugee and migrant crisis hit Europe, there are now more women and children on the move than male adults. Women and children account for 60 percent of refugees and migrants.

Every day, some 500 women die in pregnancy or childbirth in humanitarian settings. Sixty percent of preventable maternal deaths and 53 percent of under-five fatalities take place in countries affected by, or prone to, conflict, forced displacement or natural disaster.

The situation prompted 13 countries to announce at the first World Humanitarian Summit on May 23-24 their commitment between now and 2030 to increase their support for sexual and reproductive health services and supplies.

The plight of pregnant refugees is illustrated by a recent joint field assessment from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), its Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC). Researchers looking into the risks for refugee and migrant women and girls in Greece and Macedonia heard from humanitarian agencies that women often left hospitals less than 24 hours after giving birth, some having had a Caesarean section.

Pregnant and lactating women, even those with health problems, are reluctant to access services or visit hospitals for fear of delaying their journey, losing their baby or being separated from their family. Most of the women seen in Greece and Macedonia had suffered severe physical and psychological stress while traveling. Even if they were otherwise healthy, they were at higher risk of complications, premature delivery or even death.

Deni Robey, the WRC’s director of strategic communications, says assessments show very little readily available sexual and reproductive health care: “Pregnant women were waiting until the last possible moment to go to a hospital to deliver and then were back out walking within a day.”

These expectant and new mothers receive no cards or flowers. As they make their way through Europe on foot, with numerous stops and practically nonexistent antenatal or postnatal care, they will be lucky to have a bed for the night or collect basic supplies such as diapers and formula.

Many will experience fatigue from walking, heavy bleeding or other complications related to pregnancy or recent birth. Others may be weak from dehydration and poor nutrition. Some are already caring for one child or more.

The report from UNHCR, UNFPA and WRC highlights single women traveling alone or with children, pregnant and lactating women, and early-married children – sometimes with newborn babies – as among those who are particularly at risk of extortion and exploitation, including multiple forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

The E.U.-Turkey deal that came into effect March 20 only exacerbates the situation for women. Doina Bologa, the UNFPA representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, was assigned in mid-May as the organization’s senior emergency coordinator for Europe. She says: “Currently, the migration flow through the Balkans has practically halted, with only an estimate of 200-300 illegal or irregular migrants being counted by UNHCR in transit towards the Western European countries. Some 50,000 refugees or migrants are reported to be currently stranded in Greece and accommodated in some 40 camps.”

In an open letter this month to E.U. member states and institutions, Médecins Sans Frontières international president Joanna Liu brands the official welcome offered by Europe to those stranded in Greece as “shameful,” and says camps on the Greek islands have “virtually no safeguards” in place. “Women fear to go to the toilet once darkness falls, mothers beg for milk formula to feed their babies,” she wrote.

But care and services for pregnant women are slowly starting to improve. In the last few months, UNFPA has introduced four mobile health clinics with ultrasound equipment in Serbia and Macedonia, although border closures now limit women’s access to these.

Meanwhile, UNHCR is rolling out 20 Blue Dot centers: Child and family support hubs located at strategic sites (such as border entry or exit points) that will provide a package of services including mother and baby/toddler spaces, counseling, psychosocial first aid and social workers.

Providing information in a language that pregnant women understand and having female translators at transit centers remain challenges, as does access to contraception and family planning advice, says Bologa at UNFPA.

Signatories to the 13-state WHS pledge will ensure that financing for humanitarian action includes access to sexual and reproductive health. The group also backs a rollout by 2017 of the Minimum Initial Services Package (MISP) within 48 hours of an emergency. This series of crucial actions includes an objective to prevent maternal and newborn illness and death.

Sandra Krause, director of the sexual and reproductive health program at WRC, says: “We want the commitment from all humanitarian actors to implement the MISP from the onset of every humanitarian emergency, and to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care for all women and adolescent girls as soon as the situation stabilizes.”

Krause would like to see more mobile clinics serving this itinerant refugee population, and emergency response training for local health workers.

Bologa at UNFPA says there is a need for “more systemic and sustained attention” to gender-based violence issues, given that some of these women are pregnant because they have been involved in trafficking, transactional sex or domestic violence: “This migration is quite unprecedented, and the international community is still struggling to come to terms with these problems.”

From conflict to California: a journey through cooking and food

This article first appeared on the Women & Girls Hub from News Deeply

Sharing food from their homeland is helping the San Francisco Bay Area’s women refugees to resettle in a new country, while raising awareness of migration and its difficulties.

As a single mother living in the world’s largest refugee camp for 21 years, Somali-born Halimo supported her family by running her own small restaurant. From 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. each day, the mother of three fed more than 100 residents of Kenya’s Dadaab camp, serving up her signature dish of malawah – a sweet Somali pancake.

It’s a recipe Halimo shares – along with her story of resettling to the U.S. in 2011 – in “Between Meals,” a cookbook celebrating the food and lives of California’s refugee women.

Welcoming some 1,400 refugees each year, the San Francisco Bay Area is home to people fleeing conflict or deprivation across the globe, from Afghanistan and Burma to Nepal and Sri Lanka. And for more than 30 years, Bay Area nonprofit Refugee Transitions has been supporting newcomers through education, family engagement and community leadership programs.

The “Between Meals” cookbook project grew out of Refugee Transitions’ home-based tutoring program – a core plank of its work that connects low-income, high-need newcomers with community volunteers who teach them English and life skills. Through sharing meals with their host families and new communities, refugee women share their traditions and much-loved foods but also talk about the experiences that have brought them to their new home.

From Halimo’s Somali malawah pancakes to Naw Htoo’s coconut chicken soup from Thailand, from Arezo’s Afghan meat dumplings to Devi’s goat curry from Nepal, every single recipe tells a story.

Arezo and her family arrived in California from Afghanistan in 2010, when it was no longer safe to live in their native Kabul. Arezo misses her homeland, and the feeling of being surrounded by a large community. So she cooks to remember home and creates meals to connect with new friends. Her meat dumplings (mantu) are made with Japanese gyoza skins from a Mexican market in San Jose in California.

“Mantu is special to me because my mother made it for me the day I found out I was pregnant with my first child,” says Arezo. “I make mantu in California, especially when I miss Kabul and my family in Afghanistan.”

Laura Vaudreuil, executive director at Refugee Transitions, says food plays a significant part in the refugee journey: “Culinary traditions are a thread that connects these women to their homeland, to the personal and cultural history. ‘Between Meals’ is our contribution to preserving these (often disappearing) traditions, and highlighting refugee women’s experiences and expertise, which are so often undervalued.”

To create the cookbook, the volunteer tutor would spend between two and four hours a week with their student to hear their story, cook together and turn their dish into a recipe. Volunteers are trained in the “language experience approach,” which uses familiar subjects such as a food to accelerate language learning.

“Between Meals” author Lauren Markham says the process of recipe and story gathering led to “deepening connections” between volunteers and their students. “When Refugee Transitions matched refugee students with a new volunteer, families were often really excited to have visitors and met them with tea, snacks or even a four-course meal,” says Markham.

“The food was so delicious and the gestures so loving. [Refugee] women may not have worked in their home country so they don’t think of cooking as a skill. In an age of celebrity chefs, all of these wonderful home chefs are under-recognized.”

One of the hardest parts of the cookbook project was turning the student’s instinctive process of creating a familiar dish into a more precise process of measuring ingredients and cooking times. “You have to see the techniques for yourself and a lot of them were new to the volunteers,” explains Markham.

Another challenge was sourcing ingredients for these traditional dishes – from locating a goat farm an hour’s drive from Oakland to make goat curry to tracking down galangal root ginger in a Chinatown market for a Burmese chicken stew.

Vaudreuil says cross-cultural bonds like those created through the cookbook project are hugely beneficial to newcomers seeking to become self-sufficient and integrate into their adopted communities.

But it’s a two-way street. “Often, volunteer tutors tell us that they have benefited as much from the partnership as their students did. After all, tutoring exposes one to new knowledge, intelligence and perspectives that newcomers bring with them to the U.S.,” says Vaudreuil.

The project has been supported by Cal Humanities, an independent nonprofit state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. All profits from sales of “Between Meals” are distributed among the women who contributed to the cookbook, which has just printed its second edition.

“‘Between Meals’ boldly strikes new ground by centralizing the stories of the powerful women featured and elevating them as historians, keepers of culture and preservers of food traditions, as well as cooks,” says chef, educator and author Bryant Terry.

Arezo learned to make jalebi – a deep-fried syrupy sweet served at birthdays, weddings and other special occasions – from her mother at the age of 13. “In our religion, Islam, it says to eat together – to talk, to enjoy. This goes, too, for cooking … Everyone loves jalebi. When I make it in California, it reminds me of many happy times.”

 

Girl power to the people

This article first appeared on the Women & Girls Hub from News Deeply

Aware Girls co-founder Saba Ismail explains how her organization is helping young women in Pakistan to shape politics and the peace process

Women with their children attend a special service to mark Mother’s Day at Cathedral Church in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo by AP/K.M. Chaudary

Saba Ismail’s lightbulb moment came the day her 12-year-old cousin was told she had to drop out of school to marry a man 15 years older than her. Saba, also 12 at the time, recalls being outraged that her cousin would never finish her education or fulfill her dream of becoming a pilot.

 

“I realized then that education – which should be a basic human right for everyone – was actually accessible to only a very few in Pakistan,” she says.

Saba and her older sister Gulalai, 16, mobilized a handful of like-minded school friends from the girls’ hometown of Peshawar in northwest Pakistan. Their mission was to volunteer for human rights organizations and work with women’s rights activists. However, they soon realized that something vital was missing from the picture.

“At that time, there was no platform for young girls to come out and share their ideas – particularly where we were, near the border with Afghanistan, where it is a very feudal, tribal and conservative society,” says Saba.

So in 2002, at the age of 15, Saba, along with Gulalai, cofounded Aware Girls – Pakistan’s first organization run by girls, for girls, to promote women’s empowerment, gender equality and peace. “We had no real expertise, just our thoughts,” says Saba. “But there were no other organizations actually led by young women so this is what we wanted to do.”

Over the past 14 years, the Ismail sisters have grown their small group into an internationally lauded organization whose work has earned them seats at the table with the likes of First Lady Michelle Obama and U.N. General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft.

Aware Girls has developed several award-winning themes, ranging from leadership training to HIV/AIDS awareness and peace building. Achievements include setting up over 40 Girls’ Power Clubs in schools and universities to teach more than 1,200 girls key leadership skills, and a helpline to support survivors of domestic abuse that serves more than 2,000 people every year.

ANGELA CATLIN

Gulalai and Saba (right) Ismail, co-founders of Aware Girls (Photo: Angela Catlin)

For Saba, now 28 and executive director of Aware Girls, a key outcome has been getting more girls and young women to engage in the political process. “We come from a part of the country where, in certain areas, it’s not allowable for women to come out and cast votes,” she says.

In 2013, Aware Girls led a team of 100 young women (the first such group in Pakistan’s history) to monitor the general election. In the 2015 local elections, the organization trained 42 young women to run for office and three won seats.

Saba is also heartened by the reaction of boys taking part in Aware Girls initiatives such as its peace activist program. “Sometimes it is the first time that they have had training from a young woman, or the first time they’ve see a woman not covering her head,” she says. “They see that there’s nothing wrong with this and they tell us that they want to send their sisters on the program so that ‘they can be like you.’ We see real transformation in those boys.”

In December 2015, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2250 – groundbreaking guidance that calls on member states to increase youth representation in peace talks and conflict resolution amid “the rise of radicalization to violence and violent extremism among youth, which can be conducive to terrorism.”

Saba is passionate about seeing more young women in Pakistan included in such work, and contributed to a high-level U.N. debate on peace and security in May 2016. Aware Girls has set up a network of 200 youth peace activists in northwest Pakistan, who are trained in conflict-resolution skills and are reaching more than 1,000 young people each year through peer education and community exchanges.

Like her fellow human rights activist and compatriot Malala Yousafzai, Saba has faced danger because of her beliefs and work. In 2014, her family was threatened at home by armed men posing as security officers; the Aware Girls abortion advice helpline has received many threatening calls; and the organization has had to move office twice because of safety concerns.

“We have become refugees in our own country because of the work that we’re doing,” says Saba. “But we are still working with strength and commitment because this is our country.”

Looking ahead, Saba wants Aware Girls to expand its work and build more bridges between young women in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is also engaging with young women to help them use digital communication more safely: “Women face a lot of harassment online so we’re working with students on how to securely use social media.”

Saba is currently in the process of setting up a New York office for Aware Girls, to improve networking and build connections that will strengthen its work to involve more young women in the political process.

“Activism is in my blood. I cannot imagine myself without this job,” she says. “But we have a long way to go. Patriarchy is everywhere and we have to continue to work on this. We are not anti-men; we are focused on equality.”