Helena Christensen Meets The Models Changing Stereotypes In A Rwandan Refugee Camp
“I’m walking with fellow models – all refugees from Burundi – all members of TFM – Top Fashion Models agency. And they’re good. Better than good. They’re great.”
Helena Christensen, a longtime supporter of the UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency, recently visited the Mahama camp in Rwanda to meet refugees who have fled violence and persecution in Burundi. While there, Christensen photographed models who want to break the global media’s stereotypes of being a refugee, and took part in a fashion show at the camp. Here, she writes about her visit.
This is surreal. But amazingly so. I’m on a catwalk. Concrete floor, corrugated iron roof, music blaring, whooping crowd. I’m wearing a beautifully fitted, heavily patterned dress and a brilliantly clashing headscarf. This could be a show in a warehouse in New York’s Meatpacking district, or in one of London’s old covered markets. But it isn’t. I’m in a community centre. In Mahama refugee camp in Rwanda.
I’m walking with fellow models – all refugees from Burundi – all members of TFM – Top Fashion Models agency. And they’re good. Better than good. They’re great. Full of attitude and oozing confidence. They’re sassy and sexy and fierce. And they completely debunk the stereotypical image of refugees being one monolithic mass of ‘the needy’. There is a strength and there is a power that belies what must be bubbling somewhere beneath – an enormity of grief and loss and trauma.
Earlier in the day I sat with the impossibly gorgeous Gisella – 21 years old and the co-founder of TFM. She told me how, in 2015, political unrest in Burundi took a deadly turn and street protests led to violent clashes. Hundreds of thousands of Gisella’s fellow countrymen were forced to flee their homes and seek safety in the nearby countries of Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and here in Rwanda.
But Gisella doesn’t want to be defined by her past or by her status as a refugee. She wants more for herself. She told me about her life in the camp. The frustration of living three years in limbo and her determination, and that of her friends’, to band together to pursue their ambition to work in the fashion industry and to make their dreams of becoming models into reality.
Tears rolled down the cheeks of Latifa, our interpreter, as she translated how Gisella and her family had had to very suddenly abandon their home and their lives as they had always known them to be, after her father had been thrown in jail for refusing to join a militia group. Shocked and devastated, they walked for over two days to get to Mahama.
CREDIT: UNHCR/HECTOR PEREZ
CREDIT: HELENA CHRISTENSEN
This is my third field visit with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, who are on the ground leading on the response to the Burundi refugee crisis with life-saving support. But, like Gisella, UNHCR is frustrated. A dramatic shortfall in funds is not only severely hindering their ability to provide some of the most basic services needed but it’s preventing them from helping refugees thrive and build better futures for themselves.
With a population of almost 60,000, Mahama is overcrowded and under-resourced which means UNHCR services are compromised at every level – food and water is heavily rationed, shelters are only temporary, health centres struggle to cope with the huge numbers of patients; education is basic. Any support beyond this is limited, so with a little bit of material and logistical support from UNHCR, refugees like Gisella are trying as hard as they can to help themselves.
It’s obvious that TFM is creating joy and camaraderie between the models. Guy, one of the founders, tells me that “for us, TFM means friendship, love, hope, creativity. It makes us happy to be part of something so special, even if some people laugh at us when we dress up and walk around the camp! Being in a refugee camp isn’t easy and we want to bring happiness and light to our lives.”
But they’re doing more than just brightening their own days, they are having an impact on the wider community too, both inside and outside the camp. They’re active and they are ‘representing’ – they’re out and about pitching themselves to designers and fashion houses, and they’ve already taken part in Kigali Fashion Week. They put in effort and practice – rehearsing their poses and catwalks. And they work together with other members of the community to sketch designs, select materials, make clothes. Often they don’t have enough money to buy new fabrics so they make outfits from old, recycled UNHCR emergency blankets which sound like a far cry from high fashion but I assure you are really very cool.
It’s not just the team at TFM that show such exceptional grace and resilience in the face of everyday hardships that the vast majority of us can barely even imagine, it’s everyone I meet in Mahama. Everyone here defies what I believe has become an all too universal and false, negative image of what a refugee is. And Gisella and Guy and TFM are smashing the stereotype. They’re walking the walk and leading the charge on the re-brand of ‘refugee’.
Find out more and donate to support the UNHCR’s work with refugees here.