Supermodel, photographer and UNHCR high-profile supporter Helena Christensen tells Stellar why she wants the world to know more about the plight of Burundian refugees
Supermodel Helena Christensen opens up about visiting refugee camps.
When you step into a refugee camp for the first time, what strikes you at first is how hard life must be. People have very little, dwellings are basic and densely packed – not to mention the uncertainty one imagines a life there would hold.
But after you spend a few moments in the camp and begin to meet with people, you see an incredible colour and vibrancy. There’s so much going on in these communities. People grapple with life and death issues with astounding strength; they also study, work, love and dream.
About 58,000 people living in Mahama camp in Rwanda are from Burundi, a country directly to the south. They have fled horrific violence and persecution. Even though Rwanda has generously maintained open borders and gives refugees the right to work and access to its health services and schools, the crisis is still massively underfunded. UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) only has nine per cent of the funding it needs to support Burundian refugees in Rwanda.
There are so many stories to be told about these refugees – they’re wonderful, welcoming and diverse. Take Marcelline [pictured at right with Christensen], who is the head of the Tailors Co-operative, a UNHCR project to support women’s livelihoods in the camp. The cooperative makes dresses and skirts, including one that I modelled for them and purchased so I could wear it back home with pride.
Marcelline’s husband was killed, and she is raising four children alone in the camp. The cooperative has helped her by giving her a job and ways of supporting her family, but she also simply enjoys working and spending time with the other women. It helps her when they talk about life and share their problems; they make each other smile, and it reminds her that she can be happy. It is also a way of keeping bad memories at bay.
I also met young women working as models for an agency established inside the camp by refugees. Coming from that background myself, it is so inspiring to see the passion and ambition of these young people.
I became involved with the UN Refugee Agency because I wanted to help spotlight the stories of some of the most vulnerable people in the world, and photography is an incredibly powerful way to tell them.
I meet these people and the crises I’ve only read about suddenly become very real. People are not numbers. It has made me realise that every single person forced to flee is a tragedy, and every single individual who is helped can realise a new life and feel glimmers of hope for their future. And most importantly, the future of their children.
We need greater compassion for and understanding of refugees and displaced people. We need to think how we’d feel if our sister, father, friend or neighbour was forced to flee – what would we do to help them? More so, if it happened to us how would we want to be received and treated by a new country and its people?
This doesn’t need to be a political issue – it shouldn’t be a political issue. Refugees and displaced people are some of the most vulnerable children, women and men on the planet. We should be afraid them, not them.
“The crises I’ve only read about suddenly become very real”