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North Side Nonprofit Helps Refugee Girls Start New Lives Through Education

By Benjamin Woodard | January 20, 2013 8:22am
 Blair Brettschneider, who founded GirlForward in 2011, helps Khina with vocabulary words before she starts classes a Truman College.
Blair Brettschneider, who founded GirlForward in 2011, helps Khina with vocabulary words before she starts classes a Truman College.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

WEST RIDGE — Khina Sapkota spent her entire childhood in a Nepal refugee camp before immigrating to the North Side in 2008.

She and her family lived with more than 10,000 others in the camp, whose grounds they weren't allowed to leave.

Now, thousands of refugees like Sapkota, 23, live on Chicago's North Side.

A new nonprofit, GirlForward, is helping young refugees like Sapkota with homework, college applications and the everyday struggles of living in a complicated new world.

Launched in 2011 with a meager budget of $2,000, the organization matches refugees with volunteer mentors, opening the doors to its cramped, second-floor office at 2335 W. Devon Ave. for tutoring sessions.

"They're just this invisible population," said the nonprofit's founder and only full-time employee, Blair Brettschneider, 23, who previously worked at a larger refugee resettlement agency and has been able to raise tens of thousands of dollars in donations from individuals and foundations.

"Very few people know they're even here."

Brettschneider, who grew up near Detroit and graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Miami, interned at USA Today before deciding she wanted to work in nonprofits.

Her life goal after high school, she said, was to create a magazine for teen girls that was "smarter" than Glamour or Seventeen.

"I would read about my mom's Vanity Fair because I didn't want to read about prom," she said. But after landing an AmeriCorp job at RefugeeOne, in Uptown, she found a more practical way to help young girls in need.

Sapkota was born during her family's trek to the refugee camp in Nepal, just north of India at the foothills of the Himalayas, several hundred miles from Bhutan, where her parents had lived.

They fled the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan when the country exiled minority ethnic Nepalis in the 1990s, stripping them of citizenship.

In the camp, she and her family didn't have access to consistent health care.

Only when outside humanitarian groups would provide care at dental or general health clinics would her family receive medical attention.

On a Friday afternoon, after Sapkota finished her shift at a nearby Target, she headed to GirlForward to practice vocabulary with Brettschneider.

Sapkota speaks English with a strong accent, but is fluent in conversation.

However, some words are harder than others.

"We were trying to teach her what 'embarrassed' means, but there's no direct translation," said Brettschneider. "So we asked her how she'd feel if she was walking down the street and her pants fell down."

After the weekend, Sapkota was set to begin classes — in math, English and speech — at Truman College in Uptown.

Inspired by the doctors and aid workers at the camp in Nepal, Sapkota said she wanted to study to become a nurse at a hospital. It should take two years for her to complete the program.

But a bright future still can't shake the "bad, terrible days" she experienced in the camp.

"Where we were in the camp, there were medical problems. Sick people are dead really fast," she said. Many died in ambulances on the long drive to the nearest hospital, she said. 

Young refugees are often the key connection between "their families and the outside world," Brettschneider said.

Sapkota's parents don't speak English. Her dad washes dishes at a Loop restaurant, while her mom stays home to take care of Sapkota's three younger siblings.

In six months, Sapkota will be well into her nursing program and able to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Brettschneider plans to keep raising money to help refugee girls on the North Side. Last year, she said, the organization was able to raise $50,000.

"It's great to see how people and foundations in Chicago have responded," Brettschneider said of the support her programs have received to help women like Sapkota.

"Our goal is to make sure she can continue going to school. Having a stable career would entirely change her family's life."