an update on The Invisible Girls

In October 2010 I was riding the train in Portland when a Somali woman and her two girls got on the train.  As the younger girl played peek-a-boo with me as we rode toward downtown Portland, I had no idea that these little girls were going to change my life...and that I would change theirs. 

A few minutes into the ride, the little girl got tired but couldn't find an empty seat, so she climbed up into my lap, leaned her head against my chest, and fell asleep.  I started a conversation with her mom -- mostly because I didn't want her to be afraid that a strange American woman was trying to kidnap her child.  

The mom, Hadhi, told me in broken English that she, her husband and their five daughters (who were all under age 9) had come to the U.S. as refugees from Somalia.  Their three sons had died before they could get out.  Her husband had been abusive, and left them shortly after they arrived in the U.S.

When Hadhi ran out of words to tell me more about their story, she simply began to cry. 

Even though I'd never been to Africa at that point, and had never met a refugee, my heart was moved with compassion.  I'd moved to Portland a little while before I met them after nearly dying of breast cancer when I was living on the East Coast. I had arrived with just clothes and a broken heart, wondering how I was going to start over again.  So my heart resonated with Hadhi's story because in a very small way, I understood what she was going through. 

A few days later, I went to their apartment to check on them, and found they were eating moldy bread dipped in ketchup because Hadhi had been dumpster diving to try to feed her girls -- and this was all she could find in the trash.  A relationship began to form, and as I helped them get connected with resources to pay their rent, keep their utilities on, and get fresh food, they offered their friendship, love and hospitality to me.  We helped -- and healed -- each other. 

I wrote The Invisible Girls, a memoir about the experience, in 2013. And I set up The Invisible Girls Trust Fund, and designated all the profits from the book to go into this college fund for the girls. 

I get letters every week asking about the girls! So here's the latest.  The girls were ages 3-9 when I met them....and now they're ages 10-16!  

As you know if you're read the book, the family moved from Portland to Seattle about six months after I met them.  The night they were moving, I found 8-year-old Abdallah sitting on the empty bedroom floor crying.  I gently took her face in my hands and said, "No matter where you go, I will always love you, and I will always find you."  

And I've kept that promise.  Because they only knew a few numbers and letters in their Seattle address, a few weeks after they moved from Portland, I wandered around in the rain, knocking on doors all over Seattle apartment complexes in order to find them -- and I did.  

Three years ago, the family moved to upstate New York because their uncle had moved there and had gotten a job, and he got Hadhi a job in housekeeping.  So they moved into a small duplex, Hadhi started working and taking English classes at a community college, and the girls started at their new school.  The first time I went to visit them, the same thing happened -- they knew the numbers of their house but not the name of the street.  So I wandered all over the city, knocking on doors, talking to neighbors, visiting every building with those numbers.  And finally, I found them.  

When they started at the new school, they all failed the English placement test, so they were enrolled in ESL classes - and their language and reading skills have improved dramatically. 

I talk to them on the phone frequently.  And every time I'm in the area, I stop by to visit them.  I send them Christmas presents every December, and school supplies every fall.  I've traveled to 25 states and 11 countries to tell the story, to encourage people to buy the book and to give to the Invisible Girls fund. 

I'm so incredibly proud of these girls -- their perseverance in their studies, their resilience as refugees starting over in a new country, the joy they continue to exude, and their compassion for the world around them. 

The last time I visited them, we sat in a circle on their living room floor and had a pizza party (their all-time favorite food!)  I reminded them, as I always do when I see them, that funds from the book are going into a college fund, and I ask them what they want to be when they grow up.

The oldest, Fahari, told me she wants to be like Hadhi when she grows up -- a mom who cooks, cleans and cares for her children.  Abdallah wants to be a teacher.  Sadaka told me she wanted to "start a social justice center" -- I don't even know how she knows what "social justice" is, but she's passionate about advocating for people who are suffering.  Lelo wants to be a dentist.  When it was her turn, Chaki ran around in circles, then plopped into my lap, and said as she giggled, "I want to be like you, Sahara.  I want to love kids like you love us."


The Kindle version of The Invisible Girls is available on for $1.99!  

If you'd like to contribute to the fund, you can make an online donation here.