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'Safe Spaces' for Refugees Established in Devon Avenue Businesses

 Aklesiya Dejene, 17, helped organizers at GirlForward place "Safe Space" stickers in nine Devon Avenue businesses.
Aklesiya Dejene, 17, helped organizers at GirlForward place "Safe Space" stickers in nine Devon Avenue businesses.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

WEST ROGERS PARK — A Far North Side nonprofit is turning ordinary Devon Avenue businesses, like the Kabul House Express and Devon Bank, into safe havens for young refugees who've moved to Chicago from all over the world.

The campaign, called "Safe Spaces," was created by GirlForward, which tutors and mentors teenage girls who've fled from countries like Nepal and Afghanistan.

With a $500 grant from Burners Without Borders, a disaster relief nonprofit formed by attendees of Nevada's Burning Man festival, GirlForward director Blair Brettschneider and other volunteers bought hundreds of window stickers emblazoned with orange letters that read "Safe Place."

"We put them on businesses so the girls feel safe going there," said Aklesiya Dejene, 17, a junior at St. Gregory High School in Edgewater, who moved to the city from Ethiopia.

Although well-adjusted to the Chicago way of life, Dejene said many of the young refugees can feel nervous taking a bus or asking for directions from a stranger.

The stickers, she hoped, would reassure her peers that businesses on Devon Avenue would be willing to help.

"It's nice that it's there just in case," she said.

Brettschneider — in her cramped, second-floor office at 2335 W. Devon Ave — said she planned to expand the program to more of Devon Avenue and then farther into Rogers Park.

"Most of the girls don't have cell phones," she said. "It's not a very good mixture of things."

The nine businesses that have placed the "Safe Places" stickers in their front windows signed a simple agreement with seven instructions related to helping GirlForward participants when they're in need, such as allowing them to use a phone or stand inside while waiting for a bus or a ride.

Abdul Qazi, owner of the Kabul House Express, said he'd signed on to help who he could.

"It’s nice to have it, you never know," he said. "Even if you could help one person out of 100, it would be worth it."