Life ad­vice

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

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Contents - for of For more in­for­ma­tion, visit un­refugees.org.au.

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”

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