In all her years as an Academy Award–winning actress and director, Angelina Jolie—the most glamorous woman on the planet—never went to a fashion show. “I hadn’t been to one before,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Special Envoy says of the experience of finding herself seated front row during a visit to a refugee shelter in Nairobi, Kenya, last June. “But it was my kind of runway: the most beautiful girls, survivors with their heads held high, bringing forward their own designs and culture; showing how it’s possible to find your femininity again after it has been brutally attacked.”
The shelter Jolie visited on World Refugee Day is run by RefuSHE, an NGO that seeks to fill a crucial gap in care for girls and young women between the ages of 13 and 23 fleeing Somalia, South Sudan, and other war-torn countries in the region. “All the girls I met had been separated from their families or had seen their parents killed,” says Jolie. “Almost all had suffered sexual violence, and many had given birth after being raped.” RefuSHE provides counseling and shelter and conducts a multidisciplinary education program.
With the support of UNHCR, RefuSHE also encourages economic empowerment by teaching the young women to make colorful scarves using resist-dyeing, a traditional East African technique similar to tie-dye. This gives the refugees a marketable skill that can help set them on a path toward financial independence. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the scarves they make are reinvested into the program and its artisans; since 2010, nearly 70 percent of them have become self-sufficient.
“I thought the girls represented their culture and their craft in a way that was so impressive,” Jolie says of the runway show, which culminated in the audience rising to its feet and dancing with the models. “They are women in full.” The program is part of a UNHCR initiative, MADE51, that aims to bring market access to refugee artisans.
Now MADE51 is helping RefuSHE expand its product line with a new range of bags made by artisans living in Kakuma, a refugee camp in northwest Kenya where Jolie built a school for girls, and at the nearby Kalobeyei Settlement. The fabric will be hand-dyed in Nairobi and then sent to Kakuma, where the artisans will tailor it into totes, shoppers, and clutches. From there the bags will be sent to Kalobeyei, where a group of Ethiopian artisans, renowned for their beading skills, will add embellishments.
“There is so much talent within refugee populations that goes to waste because people are not allowed to work or are not able to work,” Jolie says. For Halima Aden, a 20-year-old Somali-American model who spent the first seven years of her life in Kakuma, the RefuSHE program is a welcome addition to camp life, where enterprising women rely on a barter economy of trading incense or braiding hair to make ends meet.“I wish my mom had something like that in the camp,” Aden says. “As a refugee, sometimes you feel like you don’t have a say in the world, so it’s nice that women can now have a hand in their own destinies. The craft they learn is something they can take with them because knowledge sticks with you.”
By integrating various artisanal skills and spreading the work among different camps, the program gives the maximum number of refugees an opportunity to apply their skills and earn an income, which is especially important in the remote Kenyan camps where the semi-arid climate is unsuitable for agriculture. MADE51 projects that if retailers get involved and place orders, there is the potential to create 12,000 new jobs in Kenya alone. “We need more initiatives like this,” Jolie says, pointing to refugee-artisan communities in 70 countries, ranging from Rwandan basketmakers to Afghan kilim weavers, that could also benefit from MADE51. “Nobody wants to be a refugee or to live on aid,” she adds. “They want to lead dignified, useful lives, like any of us. So I hope this is just the beginning.”