In 2002 I had the unique opportunity to work out of state with a beautiful group of children: I was hired to upstart an after-school literacy program for newly arrived immigrant and refugee youth. I have come to know this year as the Year of Charades.

I had spearheaded an after-school program in Chicago, and felt prepared for the challenges of building another program from the ground up. But still, there were some encounters that left me scratching my head.

The obstacles were numerous and sometimes even comical (who knew Oreo cookies could be met with such repugnance?), but the rewards far outweighed any barriers met.

Having studied Spanish and having lived in Mexico for five years, I often called upon my bilingual skills in the years I had worked as an educator and social service worker.

My new students had come from far-flung areas of the world including Africa, Pakistan, and Cuba, and all spoke myriad languages. Somehow I found myself reverting to Spanish, even when the situation at hand called for any language but Spanish.

When I couldn’t understand their tribal languages or the heavily-accented English they eagerly spooned out I reached for English, then – strictly out of habit – Spanish (which puzzled the African students most), then finally settled on the universal language of charades.

“Eye loaf thee sea suns,” the father of one of my African students once related with a smile. They had arrived from the Ivory Coast, having recently escaped the horrors of war. Although they had lost several members of their family to hostilities in their homeland, they were ready and open to starting a new life here in the United States.

On this particular day, I was accompanying the father and his two daughters to a new school to register them for the upcoming school year. The father had dressed in his Sunday best. Our organization had given him a certificate to be redeemed for clothing at a local thrift shop. Although outdated, he wore that polyester suit proudly, and he also wore the large sticker that bore the price. As did his new briefcase.

It was my job to help the children and families assimilate, so I explained the guidelines of dress – sans store tags. And when his daughters disrobed in the middle of a hallway to try on their new uniforms (creating something akin to a gapers delay in the children walking by), I explained the rules of undressing as well.

That day I tried to use context clues to unravel the mystery of his words. Did he say sea salts? Or sea sons?

“No entiendo,” I replied. He gave me a confused look, still smiling. I had forgotten that he didn’t speak Spanish. I tried this time in English, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand.”

He then did what me and all my students reverted to doing anytime we had a snag in communication. He used his hands to paint me a picture or tell me a story.

He moved his hands gracefully, up then down, in a vertical motion – his fingers wiggling – making their way through the air simulating a snowfall. Then he pointed to the sky above and grinned.

Oh, snow!

“You like the seasons!” I announced as if I had just figured out the winning answer to a game of charades.

These families were rebuilding their lives in a new country surrounded by foreign faces, with new laws and different traditions, a strange new climate, and an unfamiliar language. But they did so with such dignity and grace, showing a buoyancy and resilience that was astounding.

While they were safe here in America, I knew their thoughts often traveled to distant places where family members remained. I knew they missed the land they had once called home.   

Heshima Kenya Fundraiser

Heshima is Swahili for respect, honor, and dignity. Heshima Kenya is the organization co-founded by former River Forest resident Anne Sweeney dedicated to empowering unaccompanied refugee girls and young women who have been displaced by war and are living without family in Nairobi, Kenya.

Their needs and potential are at the heart of Heshima’s specialized education, shelter, income-generating and advocacy programs.

Heshima Kenya has launched a scarf-making project to give these women and girls the skills they need to become self-sufficient and provide for their families.

On Friday, May 6th two Heshima participants will share their stories at American Artworks Gallery in Forest Park. You will also hear other courageous voices of Heshima women through their poetry, as read by local  high school students.

And, of course, the beautiful scarves from Heshima’s new line will be available for sale – they make great Mother’s Day presents!

From our friends at Heshima:

Orphaned and separated refugee children and youth are considered the most vulnerable and invisible population in the world and over 5,000 are living in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Classified by human rights organizations as “unaccompanied,” most of these minors have fled from persecution in the nearby countries of Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their families have been killed or have disappeared in war.  Others were abandoned or separated from their families when they crossed the border to safety.

Together with the refugee community and our partner organizations, including the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, Heshima Kenya provides holistic case management services, specialized shelter, community outreach, informal education, and economic empowerment programming. Our innovative approach to care and outreach provides avenues for self-sufficiency and ensures vulnerable minors, especially adolescent girls, achieve leadership skills to inspire peace and social change within their communities.

The fundraiser will take place on Friday, May 6th from 6:30pm – 8:30pm at American Artworks Gallery, 7314 W. Madison Street in Forest Park. For more information, please contact Jessica Mackinnon at 708.445.1828.

 Join Heshima Kenya on facebook for updates and future event information or visit to learn more and make a donation.

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