Empowering Refugee Women and Girls

The Somali Bantu Community Association (SBCA) has been helping refugees in Syracuse since 2004.  Thanks to the support and grants awarded from the Women’s Fund, the work done by the SBCA over the last decade has impacted the lives of many women and girls.

In 2011, the Women’s Fund awarded the SBCA a grant to fund the Mother and Children Program, which provided refugees with English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, individualized tutoring, and citizenship classes. This program helped more than 50 mothers and their children, and was made possible with the help of volunteers from Syracuse University, who provided childcare so the mothers could actively participate in the weekly sessions. These women worked hard and studied long hours, and almost 30 of them passed the test on their first try, despite their rudimentary English language skills.

After two years of working with the women in this program, SBCA staff identified a significant barrier facing the Association and the refugee community at-large: while there were a great number of women refugees in the Syracuse area, very few were aspiring to assume leadership roles. In their native culture, these women and school-age girls stay at home and do not participate in local government, and the SBCA made it their mission to help these women assimilate to life in the U.S. and the new leadership opportunities available to them here.

From this initiative came the Women Empowerment Project, which focused primarily on building dialogue and negotiation skills in order to help these women learn to express their needs publicly and actively participate in local governance. The program, which was made possible through a grant provided by the Women’s Fund, taught these women the skills needed to acquire and retain jobs, earn promotions, assume leadership positions in community organizations, and advocate on behalf of other refugees like themselves. Many of the women in the program were motivated to finish high school and college degrees and aspire to professional careers previously unavailable to them, like those in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

As a result of theWomen Empowerment Project, SBCA elected Mrs. Sangabo Abdi as its first female Board President and recruited Ms. Khadija Musa as its first female secretary. In September 2014, a group of young women from the program, along with SBCA’s Executive Director, Haji Adan, visited Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner.  During this visit, the women comfortably shared their thoughts about the program and the center’s impact. The Mayor was thrilled with the work the SBCA was doing to empower the Somali Bantu refugee women, and encouraged them to work closely with other refugee ethnic communities, to leverage the leadership skills and lessons learned to help the refugee community address the challenges facing them.

This program, which originally began as a way to help refugee women learn English and gain U.S. citizenship, has grown and evolved into something that’s not only helping these refugees start over in America, but is helping to educate them to make their lives and the lives of those like them better. The SBCA shares the core fundamentals of education, advocacy and creating change with the Women’s Fund, and in working together, the two organizations have had an impact on countless lives.  

The Women's Fund of Central New York is a component fund of the Central New York Community Foundation.

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