Three years ago, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Special Envoy Angelina Jolie attended her first fashion show on World Refugee Day during a visit to the RefuSHE safe house for separated and orphaned girls and young women in Nairobi, Kenya.
RefuSHE, a pioneering nongovernmental organization, seeks to fill a crucial gap in care for East Africa’s most vulnerable refugees: girls and young women between the ages of 13 and 23 who have fled war, persecution, and sexual violence in their home countries, and who lack a family support system. The community provides shelter and trauma counseling, and conducts a multidisciplinary education program, which includes courses in math, English, and Swahili, as well as vocational training in its Artisan Collective, fostering leadership and business skills through the production of hand-dyed fabrics and scarves.
Jolie recently reconnected via Zoom with Chantale Zuzi, one of the girls she met at RefuSHE. Zuzi, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where she faced persecution for her albinism and tragically lost both her parents before she was a teenager, was resettled in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 2018 through the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program. Now 18 years old, Zuzi is staying home with her foster moms, Deborah and Alisa, finishing up her junior year of high school remotely, and putting the sewing skills she learned at RefuSHE to use making masks to help protect against COVID-19 in her free time. She dreams of studying art and international development at Columbia University and working for the United Nations one day.
It’s a sad thing that any child ever has to wish for [safety].”
“It would be great if all young refugees are given the opportunities to go to school, to just have a future,” says Zuzi in the video recording of their call. “And I’m sure that they will give so much back to the community.”
Jolie agrees, “You and I both know how lucky any community would be lucky to have so many girls like yourself and so many of your sisters around the world who’ve suffered so much and are such strong women, young women, who want just an opportunity to do good and be safe. I think it’s a sad thing that any child ever has to wish for that—that that’s not something they’re born into, to have safety.”
Zuzi and Jolie are both looking forward to RefuSHE’s next fashion show, Fashion Challenge: Reimagined, an interactive virtual design competition set for next week. Hopefully, with the new digital format, “More people will learn about the work, and the program, and the designs and all of the good,” says Jolie.
Our country was built by many people coming together from different parts of the world—that’s when we’re our best.” —Angelina Jolie
Seven young designers from Chicago, where RefuSHE has its U.S. offices, will compete by each creating a unique runway look that incorporates hand-dyed fabric made by seven members of RefuSHE’s Artisan Collective. The contestant-muse pairings are as follows: Concetta Cipriano and Solange, Amy Fenderson and Aimé, Taylor Graves and Clementine, Fraley Le and Cecile, Lagi Nadeau and Marth, Xochil Herrera Scheer and Bersherb, and Kate Van Asten and Jessica.
The show will be screened live next Thursday, at 6:30 p.m. CDT, with voting open to the public, and the winner to be announced on World Refugee Day, the following Saturday, June 20. Scarves in the same prints as those seen on the runway will be available for purchase on RefuSHE’s online shop, with 100 percent of proceeds reinvested into the Artisan Collective and its members.
Also in the video, Zuzi expresses her appreciation “to America for giving me the opportunity to be here, and I am going to make my country proud.”
Says Jolie, “You are what builds a strong America, you, women like you, young girls like you. And our country was built by many people coming together from different parts of the world—that’s when we’re our best. So I hope to be the America you see us as, that’s what we should be… The America we should be is the America you see. Let’s hope we live up to it.”
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