Friday, October 15, 2010

SCHEFO with Camilla Hermann

The SCHEF Organization stands for Shelter, Clothing, Health care, Education and Food. SCHEFO is an organization that brings these basic but essential needs to the Buduburam Refugee camp, located 27 miles outside of Accra, Ghana. Buduburam is a refugee camp that opened in 1990 to accommodate for the stream of refugees from the First Liberian Civil War. Originally run by the United Nationals High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), funding has since been pulled and the refugees are living in horrid conditions.

Camilla Hermann, a New York University student in Gallatin for Individualized Study, is one of the founders of SCHEFO and speaks about how the program started, what they are working on and where they are going. Along side Elizabeth Glaeser and Anna Bjerknes, SCHEFO is aiming to provide assistance where assistance is needed the most.

Q: What is the mission/purpose of your organization? How does your organization work to fix the problems and achieve your mission goals?

Camilla: SCHEFO provides Shelter, Clothing, Health care, Education and Food to the Buduburam Refugee Camp. Our primary initiative is The Teaching Kitchen, a sanctuary where single mothers and their children learn to cook a nutritious meals and receive basic education as well as vocational skills training. This education would provide them with skills and tools to build better lives.

We concentrate on providing women with the tools necessary to be self-sufficient. Most of women face a language barrier because they can’t speak Twi or Ga, which are the two main languages used by Ghanaians for business. Additionally, it is hard for women to obtain the proper materials and be taught the skills to run a business to save money for their families. Due to their circumstances, many of the women are involved in the commercial sex trade in the Tema area of Ghana. They are routinely abused and raped by the men who pay for their time and it is impossible to earn more than enough for one meal in a day. SCHEFO is their last hope. In our upcoming documentary, Keith Kortu, our executive office, talks about his conversations with these women and the need they express for The Teaching Kitchen.

Q: How does your organization work to fix the problems and achieve your mission goals?

C: The Teaching Kitchen works with 100 women and their children for 6 months and then rotates and a new group of women and children come in. The families come in everyday and learn how to cook the food through our communal cooking program.

Additionally, SCHEFO provides educational seminars for the women on domestic violence, HIV/Aids, malaria prevention, sexual violence, and other topics that are pertinent issues on the camp. For the kids, we are working with other organizations based both on and off the camp. We want to give the children the same holistic support and capacity building opportunities as their mothers will receive. Our goal is to adopt a model similar to that of Ragball International, although ideally we will be able to partner with this incredible organization in the near future.

Although schools exist on the camp, they all cost money, and most of the refugees we work with cannot afford these fees. We are looking at the ways in which our Teaching Kitchen program can create exchanges with the school system, for instance having the women who are learning sewing as a vocational skill stitch the school uniforms required for entry. In the long-term, however, that is one of the primary reasons why we are hoping to set up the women with skills to save money, so in turn they can send their children to school.

Q: How large is your organization? Are you student-operated or do you have a large age pool?

C: Our New York Office and base is student operated. The nature of a refugee camp means that it is a space containing a wide variety of people. The former head of security for Liberia, for example, is on our board of directors. We are fortunate to have the brilliant minds and capable hands that we do working for The SCHEF Organization. Most of the staff at the camp are people who are Liberian Refugees themselves.

We are very lucky to have Keith Kortu as our organization Director. He is a Liberian Refugee who has lived on the camp for almost two decades and has completely devoted himself to social work. No one knows the communities on the camp better than Keith does, and our organization would not be half as strong as it is without his knowledge, passion, and vision.

Our administrative director also works full time on Buduburam, he is a Ghanaian man named Jerry Braimah who has worked alongside Keith for the past eight years as a counselor for The Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment (WISE.) It is because of SCHEFO’s incredible staff that we are able to operate successfully as an international organization.

Q: How did your organization get started? Provide a quick history of the organization's growth.

C: Lizzie and I were interning with WISE on the camp. That’s where we met Keith and Jerry, who were both counselors of sexual violence survivors. We soon realized, however, that while WISE has done amazing work in the past, it was then in a state of disorganization and lacked basic funding.

As we walked with Keith around different parts of the camp over the next few weeks, we began to realize how desperate the situation on Buduburam is. We weren’t sure at that point what we could do as students. As time went on we realized that if we didn’t do anything, nobody would. We couldn’t walk away from this problem. We have a vast, powerful network through NYU, and New York City itself so we decided to join with Keith and Jerry to start the organization.

Q: Where do you see the organization going in two years? What are your future plans for the organization?

C: I think that our teaching kitchen is a great base and we are hoping to be operational by December 2010. We want to make a lasting and positive impact. The success of this project will provide us with better funding for our future initiatives.

We are in the process of designing a platform that will connect high school students to specific communities on Buduburam. We want to bridge the educational and economic gaps that exist between the disadvantaged and marginalized refugees and students at private high schools in the US through guided communication. This is our Connecting Communities Initiative, and we hope that we will be able to raise both awareness and funds through this project.

We are also planning a fashion show at which our BUDU clothing and jewelry line will be sold. This is a remarkable story and one that rests at the heart of The SCHEF Organization. While on the camp, Lizzie and I saw the serious predicament of the vocational schools – these wonderful women had put everything into creating a space in which other women could learn skills that would benefit themselves and the community. The landowning church, however, kept raising their rent and as the schools were no longer supported in part by the UNHCR, they were out of funds and unable to pay their astronomical rent.

We commissioned the women to create specific jewelry and clothing pieces out of materials that we supplied ourselves. It was at this point that I approached Anna and asked if she wouldn’t mind helping with the initiative. We were very lucky that Anna’s drive and compassion went far beyond the work of actually creating the items. She is now an integral and essential part of the SCHEFO founding team.

When our semester in Ghana ended we paid the women very well (7 x minimum wage in Ghana, or what the Ghanaian seamstresses charge per item) so that they would have enough funds to both pay their rent and purchase food. We transported the items with us to New York and are in the process of organizing a fashion show at which we can raise awareness of the Refugee’s situation and the beautiful pieces will be sold. All proceeds will go directly to SCHEFO’s Teaching Kitchen.

Q: Where can I find out more information about your organization? Will you be having meetings that I can attend?

Our meetings occur every Wednesday evening at 8pm. If you would like to join us please send an e-mail to and we will let you know the specific details of time and place.
e-mail us at :

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