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Julie Smolyansky on refusing to accept the status quo abroad and at home in Chicago

Julie Smolyansky with kids Nakivale Uganda

Julie Smolyansky with kids at Nakivale in Uganda

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Updated: May 9, 2014 2:10PM

I still remember hearing the story of a 30-year-old mother of five living at the United Nations Refugee Agency Nakivale Refugee Settlement in western Uganda. Unspeakable acts of war and sexual violence forced her and her family from their home four years ago; when I first learned of their predicament, they were living in a clay mud home under a grass roof. She arrived at the camp feeling broken and depressed.

Then she learned about a vocational class being offered at the camp, where women and men could learn how to sew. She signed up and began attending twice a week, starting with simple pillowcases and eventually mastering blouses and dresses, which she sold to fellow refugees as well as offsite to shops in town. Within two years, her profits had grown enough to allow her to purchase five sewing machines, on which she trained a small group of fellow female refugees. Today, their team earns enough to support 10 families — and their sense of self-reliance has renewed their spirit.

Stories like this woman’s were plentiful when I recently visited Uganda as a member of the UN Foundation Global Entrepreneurs Council. Our trip was designed to shine a spotlight on global entrepreneurs and understand how they’re solving some of the world’s biggest problems, empowering themselves and their communities to make real progress. Nakivale (pronounced “Nah-vih-KAHL-lay”), home to 70,000 refugees — mostly women and children who had all experienced or personally witnessed horrific circumstances of war, persecution and sexual assault — was just one stop on our visit, but for me, it was incredibly poignant. Out of pain came growth; out of scarcity came innovation.

What can we, more than 7,000 miles away in Chicago, learn from change-makers like this woman? Or from yet another woman, a married mother of two whose family opened up a traditional Ethiopian restaurant in Nakivale? Or from the UNICEF MobiStation school-in-a-box, a solar-powered, portable technology unit featuring a laptop, projector and speakers that allows a classroom of 50 African students to simultaneously learn from a single textbook displayed on the wall and Skype with other classrooms in different villages?

We can learn about innovative, inspirational and beneficially disruptive solutions. About fresh perspectives. About refusing to accept the status quo. We can scale these lessons and bring them home to our city, where we, too, struggle with community violence, a lack of healthy food and a crumbling educational system. Thinkers, doers and prospective engineers are everywhere. Like Sarah Elizabeth Ippel, founder of Chicago’s Academy for Global Citizenship, a Chicago public charter school, located on the underserved Southwest Side.The school’s organic garden and flock of chickens tended to by students ensure that hungry bellies receive at least one nutritious, locally sourced, from-scratch meal per day — food for their brains as well as their souls. Sarah Elizabeth and her students aren’t that different from the farmers I met on Bussi Island, an hour outside Kampala, who five years ago were trained by a UN partner to grow and sell their own food. To them, homegrown passion fruit, mangoes and eggplant mean financial security and emotional empowerment.

In a Third-World country, on a refugee camp borne from violence, I saw a healthy glimmer of hope, a sense of excitement. Just like children in inner-city Chicago, these kids want to be doctors, nurses, lawyers, pilots, the President. Hope coupled with opportunity is the best inoculation again poverty, violence, drug use, teen pregnancy, school dropouts and a host of societal ills. We need to think globally and act locally — changing the world for us and for them.

To help build two sustainable education programs in Nakivale, visit

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