Visions, Not Victims: Meet the Refugee Girls Who Plan to Run the World

The 15 girls sitting in a circle are from all over the world—from Syria, Guatemala, Sudan, Thailand, Afghanistan. They all came to the warm, sunny room in Oakland, Calif. as refugees, immigrants or asylees in an attempt to flee violence and instability in their home countries.

But right now, they’re not talking about their experiences of the past. Right now, together, they’re imagining their futures.

“I want to be a rock star,” shares Hilary, a shy girl from Guatemala still struggling to find the words in English. “But I also want to build a hotel, a place where anyone can stay and feel safe. It will be so beautiful from the outside that everyone who goes by will stop and want to come in.” Another young woman from Senegal chimes in: “And it will have three swimming pools!” 

Dreaming big is an essential element of the Vision Project, a program run by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a global humanitarian aid organization founded in 1933 on the behest of Albert Einstein, empowering refugee girls to envision their futures. 

IRC is deeply committed to issues of equity for girls and women. Working in over 40 countries across the globe including war-torn places like Afghanistan, IRC provides women’s protection programs, a focus on literacy in safe spaces and reproductive rights and abortion services where none would otherwise exist. 

In the midst of these programs, photographer Meredith Hutchison wanted to help girls living on the margins in places like Jordanian refugee camps, dream expansively and imagine bright futures filled with possibility. Joined by colleague Aisha Baines, Hutchison began a program educating girls about the wide range of careers open to women in the world—and then she used her skills as a photographer to capture them not just imaging these futures for themselves, but truly embodying them. 

When the photo exhibit came to the Bay Area, through a partnership with the IRC in Oakland office for a fundraiser, the images immediately hit close to home. The IRC in Oakland, which is one of four offices that make up the organization’s home bases in Northern California, launched a campaign to raise the funds for a pilot of the program in Oakland. In April of 2017, the first Vision Project Workshop for refugee and immigrant girls was realized. 

The girls are recruited from the IRC Resettlement program, Oakland International High School and other community groups and schools serving refugee and immigrant youth in the Bay Area. During the five-day experience, they gather at a local venue and engage in a curriculum focused on helping them connect to their stories of strength and resiliency, explore stereotypes and gender roles, think expansively about their future goals and dreams and learn from professional female mentors about how to strategically work towards their goals. 

Activities range from journaling activities and group reflections to creating a song and dance that expresses the power of women. Each day, the workshop cohort is visited by several professional women in the community, many immigrants or refugees themselves—a doctor from Afghanistan, a lawyer from Iran, a Japanese born entrepreneur, even Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf—who provide hands-on show and tell about their careers and their career journeys.

The girls are delighted by the opportunity to hear from successful women. Some ask about the practical aspects of building a career: “How many years of school does this job take?” Some are curious about what their lives look like: “What do you get paid now?” Others just want to know: “What do you love most about your job?”

Since its first run, 36 girls from 14 countries speaking seven languages have participated in the workshops—a partnership between IRC facilitators, IRC interpreters and community volunteers, along with the non-profit Vision Not Victim, now run by Hutchison and Baines.

Girls who are resettled to the U.S. need this. They need the inspiration to dream in order to set them on a path in their new lives in America. But it’s always a bit hard to tell who is getting more out of the sessions—the girls meeting accomplished women in the fields of their dreams, or the women meeting brave and resilient girls from across the world.

Career Counselor Elif Balin, originally from Turkey, lived from ages five to 10 near the Iraq border during the first gulf war. “After experiencing the fear of war, life-threatening incidents, missing my third grade in elementary school, witnessing the trauma of loss in several refugee children and still coping with the ongoing impact of trauma in my own family, it’s hard for me to find a corresponding feeling word to describe what it means to volunteer in a program like the Vision Project,” she explained. “I became a counselor and counselor educator because I always questioned the lack of psychological support for people to cope with and grow out of their traumas, challenges and barriers. The Vision Project creates the safe space that helps immigrant and refugee girls to find such support and prepare them to be strong young women who can empower themselves in an increasingly polarized and chaotic world.” 

Though many of the activities are focused on the girls’ bright futures, there are also moments of poignant reflection on their pasts. During one group discussion, a young woman shared that her family home had just been bombed in her home country of Syria. In response, another young woman from Guatemala shared that she, too, remembered the pain of having to leave behind many of her cherished friends, family and possessions. Together, they shed a few tears and shared a moment of silence.

These moments of solidarity and sisterhood across language and cultural barriers have facilitated lasting connections. Many of the girls who have participated in the program are still in touch, and several are learning each other’s native languages. 

The crux of the program, however, goes beyond the workshop. During the week, each girl identifies a career they want to envision themselves in. They draw out what this would look like: what they would be doing, what they would wear. Then they bring it to life, and Hutchison captures it on film.

A logistics team sets up each shoot, harnessing the power of community support to find venues that match the girls’ dreams—whether it’s a forensic medical lab, an architecture firm or the inside of an airplane. Each girl is taken to their venue and surrounded by supportive women—volunteers, interpreters, professionals in that field, the program facilitators and Hutchison, whose eye is essential in this process.

This is not just about the picture—it’s about what Hutchison calls the chin-to-chest ratio. “You see these girls go from shoulders hunched up and eyes and chin down to a transformation,” she elaborated. “They stand tall, chins up, laughing as they take on becoming a chemist, a dentist, a lawyer.” 

The girls are truly stepping into these careers. That’s what Hutchison is snapping. What you see in her pictures is not a girl pretending to be a police officer, but a girl actually seeing herself as a police officer. It’s magic.  

Those photos serve three powerful purposes.

One full set of photos is given to the girls and shared with their families during a personal visit to their homes, and during the home visits, the girls share thoughts as they view the pictures. Adriana, a 15-year-old from El Salvador, dreams of becoming a psychiatrist. “I feel happy and powerful,” she said, reflecting on her photos, “and I have confidence in myself for being able to help someone else. I want to help people feel confident and that they are not alone, and that they can do it, they can fight.” 

Equally powerful is witnessing the pride parents experience when they see these images of their daughters. These courageous parents—who have literally put their lives on the line to create a better future for their children—also see the vast possibilities for their daughters. “I was only thinking of them while they were back in my country,” one mother, who spent years separated from her daughters, remembered. “I was working for them. Then I was able to bring them over here… and now, I am proud of them. Here they will be able to have a better future and follow their dreams.”

But often, the most poignant use for the photos is sharing them with the general public. We have to counter this negative rhetoric that immigrants and refugees are a burden—that they will weigh our society down. You can’t look at these pictures and see that these amazing girls are anything but our future leaders.  

The girls embody this reality—and they come away from the program wanting to empower and support other young women in their lives. “Never give up on your dreams, because that is the only way you can real your goal,” Bayan from Syria asserted when we asked her what message she’d like other young women to hear. “Don’t let people bring you down… Girls can do anything. We are not the problem in this world, we are the power of it.”

Future rock star Hilary smiled. “Your dreams can be reached if you really want it,” she added. “If you want something, you got to try for it. There will always be rocks in the road that will try to stop you from reaching your goals. But you just have to focus… and always have music in your heart.”

Inspired by her friends’ thoughts, Adriana also sat up just a little straighter. “I want to tell other young women to believe in themselves, trust themselves,” she said. “Sometimes it might feel like it’s too much, or others might tell you your dream not the right thing for your future, but you have to believe in the power you have. You have to believe in who you are. If you want it, you can achieve it. There is always a rainbow at the end of the storm.”


The Vision Project runs exclusively on community support through donations. To learn more or support the project, click here.

About

Dr. Karen Ferguson is a licensed clinical psychologist and Executive Director of the Northern California offices of the International Rescue Committee. She holds a BA in Neural Science and a BS in Psychology from Brown University and an MA and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Case Western Reserve in Cleveland.