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In Utah, a fashion show brings awareness to the strength of refugee women


In Utah, a fashion show brings awareness to the strength of refugee women

To celebrate International Women's Day, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is proud to highlight the strength, self-reliance, and resilience of refugee women around the world.
8 March 2021
The Women of the World Fashion Show places the ethnic fashions of displaced women on display at this educational gala event for International Women's Day.

Since 2009, Women of the World has helped refugee women make Salt Lake City, Utah their home. The brainchild of Samira Harnish, the 2018 Nansen Award regional finalist for the Americas, Women of the World has empowered thousands of newcomers to achieve independence and success through a variety of means. Her first-hand experience as an immigrant to the United States served as her inspiration to create the nonprofit organization. Samira knew how difficult it can be to adjust to the customs and practices of a new country. Beyond providing a safe space for refugee women, Women of the World provides a strong support system as they settle into their new home and learn a new language and new skills.

Of the numerous events they host each year, the most anticipated event is the annual fashion show. At first, the event began as a public service with the goal of educating the citizens of Utah about the perils and persistence of the refugee women in their communities. But as years went by, each fashion show created an opportunity to celebrate compassion, beauty, and appreciation for the different cultures and traditions that refugee women bring to the United States. While this year the fashion show celebrates its 11th year, it’s the first year it has gone virtual due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the goal to educate and empower remains prevalent in its theme: “Rise Up”.


Diane Sawadogo, Marie-Chantal Niwenshuti, and Heba Geiang, shown in their traditional dress.

The models, all refugee women, will be walking the runway to highlight their traditional dress, and to share their stories. One thing unites them all: the community they found through Women of the World. For Diane, a four-time participant in the fashion show and a refugee from Burkina Faso, she came to the United States in hopes of continuing her education. “Having to go abroad, not knowing anyone, and starting over was really hard,” Diane said. She prides herself on being an extrovert so when she began classes at the University of Utah, she introduced herself to her classmates and started to make new friends. “When you don’t really have a choice, you have to jump into it.” Yet what really made a difference in her day-to-day life was meeting Samira. “The first day I met with her it was like meeting my mother from another country,” Diane said. Through Women of the World, Diane was introduced to the organization’s support system and opportunities.

Marie, a refugee from Rwanda, had a similar sentiment. “They’ve always been there for me. They’ve given me a scholarship twice. When I started college, they helped me get things for my room, like plates and chairs,” she said. Marie came to the United States when she was 11, her parents hoping to provide a safer environment where their children could obtain a better education. “I loved how the United States was so bright. There were lights everywhere, so it felt safer,” Marie reflected. As a first-time participant in the fashion show, she is eager to give back to a community that has given so much to her and her family. “I started a nonprofit organization with my friends called Future Scholars of Africa. We fundraise money to help refugees pay for their college tuition. Samira helps us to select refugee students who are most in need.”

Giving back to the communities that embraced them is a common theme between the models participating in this year’s fashion show. For Heba, she wants to help bring awareness and start a conversation around the challenging lifestyle transition refugees and immigrants face when they arrive to the United States. A refugee from Egypt born to Sudanese parents, her family settled in Manchester, New Hampshire when she was three. Even though she has spent most of her life in the United States, she saw her mother struggle to assimilate into a new culture and environment. It inspired her to want to advocate for refugees in the United States.

“I want to tell the stories of refugees and the challenges they face. My goal is to not make it taboo, we shouldn’t struggle to speak about these things, and we should know it’s safe to talk about it too,” Heba said.

The refugee models are walking testaments that, against all odds, their unwavering persistence is helping their dreams come true. “I hope my journey can teach other young girls like me that they aren’t limited to certain things. You have to believe in yourself and be ready to work a little extra hard for what you want,” Marie said. When thinking of others going through the journey as a refugee, Diane offered a more technical piece of advice: “Being an engineer, when you put a load on something over and over again, there is this action and reaction. So always do that action, never give up, and there will be a reaction.” For Heba, the advice she gives to refugees is simple, to the point and a reflection of the American Dream: “Take a chance on yourself and do what makes you happy.”

The 11th Women of the World Fashion Show & Cultural Gala will be held on Wednesday, March 10, 2021 at 8 pm EST. You can find more information on the event, including how to watch here.