Actress and Activist Kat Graham Partners With Rotary International To Promote Financial Independence For Refugees In Uganda

by K. Megan Lawrence

Kat Graham and the refugees she’s worked with in Uganda’s Nakivale Settlement are not that different. They have a disparate set of circumstances, struggles, and resources available to them but the women she met during her mission trip, the burgeoning designers who see fashion-magazine trends and are reimagining them in Congolese fabrics? Graham sees herself in them.

The 30-year-old activist and actress has always felt connected to working with refugees. She describes her childhood mood boards as featuring images of activism instead of the “diamonds and princesses” on other kids’ boards. She also comes from refugees, with a grandfather who fled Liberia and ended up climbing the ranks at the United Nations and a grandmother who fled the Holocaust.

Born in Switzerland to parents working alongside her grandfather at the UN, Graham feels a biological connection to displaced people. Last March, she traveled to Uganda with Rotary International to help members of the Nakivale refugee settlement, current home to nearly 120,000 refugees, learn entrepreneurship skills and trade skills to help them gain financial independence.

“I feel like it’s possible for anyone to become a refugee,” Graham says. “I mean, the people that I’ve met had it way more together than I do. They were students and they were shop owners, and they were in universities. They had their dreams abruptly halted because of political conflict or gang attacks.”

An astonishing 71 million people have fled wars, human rights violations, and environmental disasters to seek asylum in other countries. Uganda is currently home to over 1.2 million refugees, and the country’s government is internationally recognized for its generous open-door refugee policy that provides people with plots of land, education, and the right to employment.

The Nakivale Rotaract Club that Graham partnered with – a type of Rotary club geared toward young leaders and professionals - occupies a special status as the first Rotary club in a refugee settlement. Rotaractors can chart their own course within the club, mentoring young people, teaching trades like masonry, or offering apprenticeships in fashion design and dressmaking.

During Graham’s trip, she worked with designer Gloria Wavamunno, who founded Kampala Fashion Week to showcase the work of Ugandan fashion designers. Young women were able to visit Wavamunno’s studio, where they learned new design techniques and worked with seamstresses to expand their skill sets. The goal was to show the best art and fashion from Africa, work that’s on par with some of the most commercially and critically acclaimed fashion designers around the globe.

“I—and Rotary—didn’t want to make it a story about refugees fleeing for their lives,” the actress says. “We wanted to make it about young women who are fashion designers, who are [Rotaractors], who happen to be in a refugee resettlement and how are they are making the best out of it, and doing it all themselves within their community. That was a really important part of how we wanted to tell their story.”

And that theme is central to Graham’s, in her words, soul mission. Although the term “refugee” conjures the image of someone who is trying to rebuild their life with dignity in the face of hardship, there are other types of stories to tell about displaced people—stories that shine a light on individuals who are contributing to the world through their art.

She describes visiting a store within the resettlements where women could purchase fabric and get help from other seamstresses with patterns. Many of the women were using Congolese fabrics to bring parts of their culture from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where many of Uganda’s refugees come from, to Uganda. She connected with the women over their shared passion for art and fashion, which runs deep for the multi-hyphenate actress/model/singer/producer.

The hardest part of this mission trip for Graham was leaving, though she says that after a number of trips to visit displaced communities, she’s gotten better at processing the day-to-day living conditions of the people she meets.

“I’m really into fashion, and I do a good amount of press and shoots,” she says. “Sometimes I get these flashes of being back at the resettlements and what they would give to have the platform and opportunities that I’m having, the home that I’m having, the bed I’m able to sleep in.”

In some resettlements, homes aren’t built sustainably with bricks that help moderate temperatures and a lack of potable water creates sanitation issues where residents barely have water to drink, let alone shower. Graham is concerned particularly for women about sanitation and sickness. On top of these basic necessities not being met, people are trying to rebuild lives they might have lost before they became refugees.

“A lot of these men, women, young girls, young men, they had lives—they weren’t always refugees,” she says. “I think people forget that; people assume that maybe a refugee was always a refugee or think their scenarios at home weren’t much better than the resettlement scenarios. It just isn’t accurate.”

Graham started working with Rotary International after speaking at their 2018 Toronto conference focusing on the refugee crisis. She remembers walking into their Chicago offices last January and recalls that she “just started crying” when she learned of the wide-reaching work of the organization. If there are two core characteristics that can describe Rotary International’s impact for the actress, it’s immediate action and specificity.

Instead of focusing on singular missions, Rotaract members can create clubs that give their own narrative to the specific community they’re in. Within each community or country or village, members can use their unique set of tools to create the change they want and give back, whether that’s training teachers or, in the case of Graham’s most recent trip, helping people living in settlements to learn entrepreneurship skills to get their businesses off the ground.

For those looking to get involved or find their own soul missions, she suggests finding the thing that you feel most connected to, whether it’s an environmental cause or an anti-bullying campaign, and use that mission to make the world better.

“Being the voice of the voiceless has always been my personal life motto," she says, "helping people who aren’t getting heard and aren’t getting support or fair treatment. Whatever your mission is, you can absolutely find that within a Rotary Club and it’s a great way to just get started.”

This article is sponsored by Rotary International