Iman

Iman Opens Up About Being a Refugee: "These Aren't Nameless, Faceless People"

The bulk of the fashion industry is currently in Paris, prepping to send off the last leg of Fashion Week. But the same can't be said for Iman: The Somalian-American supermodel chose to stay behind in New York City, where she announced the latest stage of her historic career on Tuesday. After decades of more straightforward activism and philanthropy, the 64-year-old model and entrepreneur is taking on a new role: the first-ever global advocate of CARE, the leading global organization fighting poverty, particularly through empowering women and girls.

CARE created the position specifically for Iman, and it's not hard to see why. Whereas statistics like the fact that there are currently more than 70 million people displaced worldwide are often difficult to wrap your head around, Iman makes it easy—and, it almost goes without saying, heartbreaking—to understand. That's in large part because the supermodel herself is a refugee, and has been loud and proud about pointing out as much for decades. She opens up about the past and shares her hopes for the future, here.

Why did you want to work with CARE?
I knew about CARE, of course. And I knew they were very good at handling something I’ve experienced firsthand, because I am a refugee. I am the face of a refugee. I became a refugee in 1972, when there was a coup. My father, an ambassador, was in danger, so we decided to leave the country—to leave just with the clothes on our back. We ended up in Kenya. So here I was, on my own, never worked in my life outside of my family home. And then I met the angels that are NGOs—the ones which is where I first met the angels that are NGOs. They're the ones who are really are on the ground helping refugees navigate through their new countries. They asked me what I could do, and I spoke three languages, so they found me a job as a translator. They put me through Nairobi University, they and helped me find me a place to live.

How old were you at the time?
I was barely 16. So I’m very aware what happens to girls and women when they’re that vulnerable. The most important thing about young girls becoming refugees is that people take advantage of them, whether through sexual harassment or rape. Which is part of why, in my job as global advocate, I want to make sure there'a collective humanity. These aren't nameless, faceless people, and they aren't from far away. They’re everywhere; it happens to every country. All that’s unique is that there are more people fleeing nowadays. You know, my mom and dad have lived in this country for 35 years. When my mom passed away three years ago, her last wish was to be buried in Somalia. I want people to understand that most refugees want to go back home. They don’t want to stay in foreign countries where they’re not wanted, where they’ve left their families. Nobody wants that, but they have no choice—there are circumstances that made them flee. I really want to put a face to it—to show that we shouldn’t put everybody in one bag, so to speak.

What are the next steps?
I’m going to go on the ground, whether to Uganda or the Congo or Syria. I want everybody to understand, though it is a hard issue to speak about and to tackle. But it’s not impossible to tackle. Needless to say, America is made of immigrants and refugees—people who hopes and dreams, who have talents and important contributions to make to their country, including their host country. I mean, look at me: America adopted me. I’m an American citizen. I have my own company. Everything I have now, I only have because I was shown dignity.

As you said, it's a hard issue to speak about, but more and more people have joined you in doing so, like the model Adut Akech. At what point in your career did you first feel comfortable speaking out?
I’ve been saying this from the beginning. At times when people say I’m African American, I say I feel like I’m an American African. I’m 64 now and have been an American citizen since my twenties, so I’ve lived my adult life here. So I've always been saying it, but I've also always been the one saying it in fashion. When I arrived here in 1975, I was working with Vogue and the makeup artist didn’t even have foundation for dark skin. That’s what made me decide to make my own cosmetics, 20 years after I stopped modeling.

You've also been outspoken about racism and the need for diversity in modeling and fashion throughout your career, too.
When I started in 1975, they also paid black models half the amount that they paid the white models. So I asked to be paid exactly the same amount as my counterparts, the Caucasian models. To me, it wasn’t about color; it was about getting paid for a service. And then eight years ago, there was another issue with diversity; Bethann Hardison, Naomi Campbell and I heard how many designers weren't using black models anymore, so we started talking to the designers. Now, it’s palpable and very visible how the fashion industry has changed in just six years. The doors have been opened and the girls have been welcomed, and it’s not just good for us. It’s good for business, and it gives young girls self esteem, by showing them that they can be seen. And being seen goes back to refugees—they need to be seen. They need to be dignified and be seen as human beings.

What would be your advice to young girls growing up today?
I’ve always said there’s a great safety in numbers, and these young girls and young people are a movement who are changing the world in front of our eyes. Young people are not waiting for us older people to make decisions anymore—they’re going to take it in their own hands. I just hope that we’re able to guide them, and to help young refugees and young people in poverty be able to really fulfill their hopes and talents and dreams, because they’re the ones who’ll be saving the world next time around. I mean, look what happened with the climate march—it was astounding.

Are there any young people in particular you really admire?
Well, when it comes to the climate, there’s only one. [Laughs.] She's beyond. [Greta Thunberg] is beyond! When I grow up, I want to be her. She’s a superhero.

Related: Greta Thunberg Schooled the Adults at the United Nations Climate Summit