In this op-ed, UNICEF USA advocate, model, and former Somali refugee, Hamdia Ahmed explains why there needs to be greater support for refugees in the United States this World Refugee Day, especially given our current sociopolitical climate.
Before I moved to the United States in 2005, all I really knew was the refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, where I grew up — and even then, the concept of “home” was complicated. My mother was nine months pregnant with me when she and my four siblings fled Somalia and walked 370 miles on foot in search of safety. I was born halfway into that journey, and in that moment, I also became a refugee.
When I think back to the first seven years of my life, I remember a lot of fear and trauma, but I know that those feelings go further back than my memory allows. Many families didn’t make it through that journey, with children and adults too sick or exhausted to keep going, and others dying in the process. Some women urged my mother to leave me behind when they learned she’d just given birth to me. My mother insisted that she loved her children more than anything and kept us five siblings together.
Even once we made it to the refugee camp in Kenya, life was hard. My parents worked tirelessly within the refugee camp to provide for my siblings and me, yet still, resources were limited outside of the aid we received from UNICEF and other organizations. But everything changed when I was 7, the year my family and I were given permission by the U.S. government to resettle in the United States. As I look back at that time, I’m reminded of the meaning behind my name, Hamdia — Somali for “blessing.”
More needs to be done to protect uprooted families and children whose voices aren’t being heard.
As the saying goes, no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land. Simply put, no one chooses to be a refugee. Growing up in Dadaab, I had big dreams but I never knew if they would come true. As a former refugee, I feel lucky to know what it’s like to actually have a chance to pursue them.
In 2017, I became the first Miss Maine contestant to wear a hijab and burkini, and in May, I became the first member of my family to graduate from college. As a child, I didn't see a lot of women in the fashion industry who looked like me or had stories like mine — but now I have the opportunity to be a role model for other refugees who need to know that they, too, can create positive change.
Today, the world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This World Refugee Day serves as a sobering reminder that in 2018, there were 25.9 million refugees, and now one out of every 108 people in the world are forcibly displaced.
The refugee crisis isn’t just an issue that affects people in Africa and the Middle East — it’s a global issue. All around the world, people are uprooting their lives and fleeing home in search of safety. Here in the United States, this crisis is unraveling on our own borders, as thousands of families are forcibly displaced by conflict, poverty, famine, drought, and other disasters across Central America, traveling north in search of protection.
As their stories continue to make headlines, I can’t help but think how my life might have been different if I hadn’t been given the chance to resettle in the United States. And now more than ever, I know that more needs to be done to protect uprooted families and children whose voices aren’t being heard.
That’s why this World Refugee Day, I’m calling on Americans everywhere to join me and UNICEF USA in standing up for refugees’ rights worldwide. By using whatever resources we have — our voices, our social media, and our money — we have the power to advocate for some of the world’s most vulnerable people, and in turn provide an opportunity for a safer, more just future.