As far as I can remember, I have always been interested in discovering new cultures and considered what affects other countries as important as what affects my home country. Since I was a child, I’ve had the chance to travel on a regular basis, and this may be one of the reasons why I see the world as a global village and myself as a citizen of the world. My interest in international issues was increased during my study abroad experience at Loyola University Chicago.
It is crucial for our youth to learn about the world outside of their local community, and teaching kids about various cultures and international issues should be done since an early age for several reasons. First of all, this will help them avoid internalizing stereotypes and negative feelings towards what is presented as the “Other.” As Gandhi said, “If we are to reach real peace in the world, we shall have to begin with children.” Intercultural dialog, understanding of various cultures, respect for differences, and a realization of our shared humanity should be fostered and nurtured as early as possible so that children grow up seeing the beauty and unity that lie in diversity. Moreover, while it is important to teach them history and geography, it is paramount for children to hear stories of individuals so that they avoid stereotyping people. In this regard,
I highly recommend watching Chimamanda Adichie’s video “The Danger of A Single Story.” In addition to sowing seeds of peace and open-mindedness in the kids’ minds and hearts, by realizing how we are all connected to each other, children are more likely to develop a sense of concern and responsibility towards their fellow human brothers and sisters. In other words, they will realize that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Martin Luther King Jr.). Finally, as we live in a world in which we cannot remain isolated but have to work with other countries to solve local as well as international issues, it is important for children to improve their cross-cultural skills as early as possible so that they will be better prepared to deal with these complex issues as adults and work them out efficiently.
I have been lucky enough to travel around the world since I was a kid and have had the chance to visit Asia, Africa, North America, South America and various countries in Europe. Having been exposed to various cultures has enriched my life in immeasurable ways. As I mentioned earlier, it has probably helped me realize much faster how interconnected we all are and led me to develop great interest and passion for the richness of all cultures and for intercultural dialog and peace building. When travelling abroad, I also had the chance to live with local families, such as when I went to China. Living with a family, you are able to see what everyday life is like. This obviously gave me a much richer experience.
Studying abroad, which I did in the US, was a transformative experience for me. My education at Loyola has transformed me so that I can transform the world. While there, not only did I experience a new system of education and made lifelong friendships with students from around the world, I found my calling. My education at Loyola did not stop in the classroom. This university, whose core mission is social justice, offered me many opportunities to take leadership positions on- and off-campus. While there I served as president of Loyola’s International Club and Comparative and International Education Graduate Student Association. I also started working with other communities in Chicago, notably with refugee communities, and in the years to come I envision myself advancing their cause in various parts of the world. In addition to my work with refugee agencies, I now work in a bilingual school that prepares for the International Baccalaureate.
Becky: What is your educational background? Can you tell me about any experiences that have changed the way you look at the world?
I grew up in Marseille, France and graduated from the Universite Aix-Marseille with a major in English and American studies. I then came to Loyola University Chicago as an exchange student to specialize in American studies. Fascinated by the differences which exist between educational systems throughout the world and how they shape our minds, I decided to come back to Loyola for another M.A. and enroll in the Cultural and Educational Policy Studies program to study Comparative and International Education.
As I mentioned earlier, this study abroad experience was a transformative experience that opened my eyes to a whole new world. But, within this experience, another experience changed my life in a very profound way, and that is my work with refugee communities. I started by mentoring the mother of a Bhutanese family however, little by little, I ended up teaching English to the entire family and familiarized them with Chicago, the American culture, etc. This mentorship rapidly developed into a deeper relationship that went beyond mere teaching. We immediately adopted each other and became family. My two sisters who affectionately call me “didi” (which means “sister” in Nepali) are now part of GirlForward, as is the case of my sister from Ivory Coast whom I first met when I came to her home as a French interpreter.
When you start working with the refugee community, you cannot walk away from it as there is so much need, pain, and inhumanity, yet so much love, joy, resilience, humility, and humanity. Since then, I’ve dedicated my life to refugee communities who have never ceased to capture my heart and I have eagerly sought out opportunities to get more and more involved: volunteering as a member of World Refugee Day Chicago committee, attending as many events as I could from various refugee agencies, and helping out with some families whenever needed. You go there to help and in the end they are the ones helping you. They have taught priceless life lessons. I have learnt how to appreciate any opportunities I have been given even more and how to look at the work less egocentrically.
GirlForward is a nonprofit organization in Chicago working with adolescent refugee girls. We began our programs in August 2011, so we have been around for a year. In that short time, we’ve served nearly 50 girls through our programs.
I met Blair Brettschneider, GirlForward’s founder, in February 2011 through the World Refugee Day Chicago planning committee, on which we both served. Blair, an inspiring leader, knew how passionate I was about refugee issues and this is why, when she founded GirlForward in August 2011, she contacted me to know if I would be interested in being a part of this organization. I immediately saw the immense potential there was in this organization, which is why I did not hesitate a second and told her I was in! What I particularly liked was that the mission goes beyond the girls’ status as refugee and focuses on the empowerment and flourishing of the individual so that they can ultimately serve their communities and the world better. I currently serve as the Safe Spaces Project Coordinator. Through our Safe Spaces Project, girls exercise leadership skills in small groups that focus on cultural identity, problem-solving, and other projects of the girls’ choosing.
Becky: Who does GirlForward help? Do you have a specific success story you can tell me about?
GirlForward is dedicated to empowering teen refugee girls who have been resettled in Chicago from war-torn countries around the world. The girls are between ages 14-19 and represent diverse backgrounds and experiences. Some of the countries represented include Bhutan, Iraq, Burundi, DR Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Burma. GirlForward was founded off the success story of one girl in particular – Domi, who was resettled in Chicago at age 15 after growing up in a refugee camp in Tanzania. When Blair, who founded GirlForward, met Domi in 2010, she was at risk of not graduating from high school. Domi was highly motivated, but her limited English/educational background and responsibilities at home were making it extremely difficult for her to succeed. Blair became Domi’s mentor, working with her every week on homework, discussing her future, and navigating her neighborhood. Domi just graduated from high school and will be starting college in the fall! GirlForward was founded to replicate Domi’s success with other girls in the community.
Becky: I love your organization- not only because I am originally from Chicago, but also because I have been an ESL teacher for years, and then went into school counseling. I have always worked with refugee/asylum seekers, and I love that your organization is mentoring them, setting up educational programs, and offering them leadership opportunities. How can people get involved or donate to GirlForward?
Anyone who wants to get involved, either through volunteering or donating, can visit our web site, girlforward.org! They can also visit our Facebook page, which we update every day with photos and updates from our programs (Facebook.com/GirlForward). Any questions not answered on our web site can go to email@example.com - we always get back to questions!
Thank you so much Charlotte! I really enjoyed learning about your organization, and if I am ever lucky enough to move back to Chicago I would love to volunteer with you guys! Check out this video that GirlForward made for World Refugee Day, of girls from their organization offering a glimpse into their lives: