Elizabeth Futrell is an associate technical officer at FHI360, where she works on activities related to community-based family planning and youth sexual and reproductive health.

© 2011 Onasis Odelmo, Courtesy of NBC Chicago

On July 26, ten up-and-coming Chicago fashion designers competed in the Heshima Kenya Fashion Challenge, an innovative event to benefit unaccompanied refugee girls who have arrived in Nairobi from conflict- and famine-ravaged regions of Africa. In 2007, Anne Sweeney and Talyn Good founded Heshima Kenya, a U.S. nonprofit organization based inNairobi, after noticing that most humanitarian relief efforts focus on general aid and overlook the unique and pressing needs of unaccompanied refugee minors.

© 2011 Melissa Hayes Photography

Heshima is the Swahili word for respect, honor, and dignity, and Heshima Kenya was founded on the belief that young people deserve to grow and develop with integrity and thrive in communities where their rights and interests are respected. Heshima Kenya works to carry out its mission by providing a continuum of holistic care to address issues of medical care, shelter, education, legal documentation, and family tracing. The program also promotes self-sufficiency by providing skills-building opportunities, resources, and economic support for a healthy transition to adulthood. Its staff works with partner organizations and local schools, clinics, and religious organizations to identify and protect additional unaccompanied refugee minors and spread awareness of their needs. Finally, the program builds the capacity of the refugee community to effectively care for minors and encourage youth participation as caregivers, volunteers, and mentors.

One initiative that has developed from Heshima Kenya, the Maisha Collective, offers refugee girls and young women from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Burundi economic opportunities with which to rebuild their lives. By managing a business collective that designs and produces a line of unique hand-dyed scarves, participants gain business and marketing skills that prepare them for future independence.

© 2011 Onasis Odelmo, Courtesy of NBC Chicago - The winning design.

The Heshima Kenya Fashion Challenge was a Project Runway-inspired competition, emceed and judged by local celebrities and members of the Chicago fashion community. Competing designers each received one Maisha Collective scarf, chosen at random, and had two weeks to design an original women’s look. The judges critiqued each look and chose the winning design. The audience also voted on one designer to receive the People’s Choice Award. Guests had the opportunity to bid on the designer looks and, of course, purchase scarves.

Many of the designers said that their creations were inspired by the young women who made the scarves; in turn, there is no doubt that the members of the Maisha Collective in Nairobi will be inspired to see how the 10 American designers transformed their scarves into unique and beautiful couture.

© 2011 Onasis Odelmo, Courtesy of NBC Chicago

For a full slideshow of photos from the event, click here.