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Can GirlForward's Superior Program Structure For Refugee Girls Be Applied To American Girls?

Top: Fatima and her mentor, Wajiha, meet up weekly to catch up. Bottom: In the middle photo, Blair Brettschneider, the founder of GirlForward is flanked by her Austin staff. | Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures for Politico Magazine

Top: Fatima and her mentor, Wajiha, meet up weekly to catch up. Bottom: In the middle photo, Blair Brettschneider, the founder of GirlForward is flanked by her Austin staff. | Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures for Politico Magazine

The Austin, Texas branch of Girl Forward, a nonprofit founded in Chicago in 2011, is run exclusively by millennial women for high-school age refugee girls. Politico profiled the group in November 2018, landing in Austin. because Texas is second only to California in its refugee population.

GirlForward is predicated on the notion that refugee girls face particular hardships due not only to the tumultuous circumstances of their upbringing and relocation but also their gender. “Oftentimes, our girls haven’t been able to pursue education in the same way their brothers have,” Shannon Elder, 24, GirlForward’s Austin development manager, observes. “In countries of conflict, girls’ access to education can be much more limited than it is for boys,” said Arielle Levin, who runs the mentorship program. GirlForward recruits refugees through Austin nonprofits, schools, and word of mouth. It tries specifically to recruit the oldest daughter in a family, reasoning that they are usually shouldered with the heaviest burdens. “A lot of my family don’t speak English,” said Storai Rana, an 18-year-old refugee from Afghanistan, “so there was so many responsibilities of things I had to do. Like I had go to the bank, to the market,” she said.

Girl Forward attempts to help its girls lead lead full and rich lives, moving behind tangible tools like opening a checking account or learning how to use the local library.

Fatima Mirzakhail, an 18-year-old refugee, told Politico’s Ethan Epstein that her initial optimism on arriving in America and leaving her war-torn country of Afghanistan soon evaporated. “In Afghanistan I felt like I was in a box, and I couldn’t fly anywhere.” Fatima explained. Her expectations that life in America would be so different soon evaporated. Before becoming part of Girl Forward, “I was crying all the time, hating myself,” she said.  Now Fatima is blossoming “planning on attending a local community college next year before transferring to UT. “

Founded by Blair Brettschneider, who graduated from the University of Miami with a journalism degree in 2009, as an economic collapse loomed large on her horizon, Girl Forward was launched with a $2,000 check from Blair’s grandparents. The nonprofit today receives about half its funding from the Chicago-based Springboard Foundation, with the balance coming from individual donors. Some 15,000 refugees settled in Illinois since 2012, largely as a result of the Syrian war. The vast majority settled in Chicagoland.

In 2015 Brettschneider looks towards Texas, even though governor Greg Abbott generally was opposed to refugee resettlement. Austin was another matter, however.

GirlForward launched an Austin pilot program in 2015 and the results were stellar. Interest from local refugee communities was intense, and in many ways, it was actually easier to operate in Austin than Chicago, Brettschneider found. For one, the school system was “actually functioning,” she notes, which made it easy to use school facilities to host events. Other local nonprofits were also extremely welcoming, she says. 

Politico’s in-depth look at Girl Forward’s mentoring program provides more structure and results monitoring than most American girls (or boys) receive in their natural families. Given that refugee arrivals are plummeting under the Trump administration, Girl Forward has no plans to expand its operations.

Caritas of Austin, which has helped settle refugees in the area for 44 years is actually shuttering at the end of 2018, citing declining resettlement numbers . Girl Forward will pick up needs created by the shuttering — and perhaps the 2020 election will reset America’s return as a country that welcomes immigrants.

It seems, though, that the rigor, structure, accountability but also warmth and encouragement for girls provided by GirlForward is an American need that Brettschneider’s talents should consider.

Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures for Politico Magazine

Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures for Politico Magazine