Gigi Hadid and Hamdia Ahmed have a lot in common. Though their upbringings varied drastically, with the supermodel spending her early years in Los Angeles and the activist and former Miss Maine contestant living in a refugee camp in Kenya before moving to the United States, both love modeling and are true symbols of hope. Hadid, now on her third CR cover, is a first-generation American, with her father’s immigration from Palestine leading to infinite possibilities for his future children. Living in the U.S. also completely transformed life for Ahmed, who since moving has had the opportunity to further her education and give back to UNICEF, which helped her during her years in the camp. Hadid and Ahmed sat down to discuss their different yet connected experiences, UNICEF’s incredible work, and keeping the faith.
Gigi Hadid: Tell me your story and how it has shaped who you are today.
Hamdia Ahmed: I was born during the Somali War in 1997. I was one week old when it was getting really bad, so my mom escaped from the war with her five kids, including me. I was the youngest. My mom saw people abandoning their children, and people told her, “You need to leave this girl. Abandon her, she’s a baby, it’s too much for her.” My mom said, “No, I’m taking all my kids with me.” So she walked 370 miles to a refugee camp in Kenya. I was raised there for seven years until I moved [to the United States] in 2005.
GH: Wow. My dad was a Syrian refugee and has a similar story. He was born in Nazareth, Palestine, and the week that his family was kicked out of their home, they moved to Syria. I think he was also about one week old. It’s crazy to think about what our families did for us.
HA: It’s so unreal sometimes. I’m just like, Am I really in America right now?
GH: How much of the refugee camp do you remember?
HA: I remember going to school and getting uniforms, backpacks, books, and meals from UNICEF. I never knew that America or any other country existed. I was just stuck in Kenya.
GH: Did you see a possibility of getting out, or did you imagine you would always live in the refugee camp? Were there things that made you feel hopeful?
HA: When I was younger, I used to carry the UNICEF sign and say, “I’m going to work for them one day, guys!” That was my way of dreaming. I didn’t know that we would be going to America until I was six. My family members were sexually assaulted in the camp, so UNICEF helped support one of my siblings with the trauma. I remember my mom used to ask, “Do you want to go to Canada, Australia, or America?” I was a child, so to me, it was just a process that we had to go through.
GH: What helped you stay strong at the camp?
HA: School is what helped me to be strong. School helped me a lot.
GH: You said you’ve always wanted to be a model. When did you first become interested in fashion?
HA: I used to be bullied for my skin color when I was in middle school in Maine. I’ve had so many people tell me, “You need to bleach yourself. You would look so beautiful if you were light.” And I’m just like, “No.” I remember when I was 12 years old, I went to a store and looked at bleaching products because I felt so ugly. I used to be afraid to be in pictures with my friends.
GH: You were beautiful today in your picture.
HA: Can you imagine? Now I’m shooting with Gigi, so…
GH: So middle finger to them!
HA: I started being more confident when I was 14 years old, like, “You know what? I’m freaking beautiful. I don’t care, I’m confident.” I would wear whatever I wanted. The bullies wanted me to cry, but I wouldn’t. I started taking pictures of myself and would watch Tyra Banks every day. I used to do runway walks in my basement. My mom would say, “Hamdia, what are you doing?” And I would say, “Did you not see the way Tyra just walked? I need to do the same thing.”
GH: You should have seen my face when I met Halima [Aden] on set for the first time. I was so excited. My dad’s side of our family is Muslim. When my grandma moved to the States, she was very modern and didn’t cover herself, but she was still a very powerful, strong, Muslim woman who led our whole family. She was very accepting of her children who still wanted to cover, and if they didn’t, she embraced them as well. It’s powerful to see you and Halima stand by your faith.
HA: Thank you. I’m not signed with an agency yet, but…
GH: But we’re gonna get you signed, honey girl!
HA: They’d better take me. I called modeling agencies when I was nine or 10, at the time I was being bullied, so I just forgot about it. I e-mailed them again when I was 14 and agencies said, “Yeah, good luck. We hope nothing but the best for you.” I’m just like, “One day you’ll see me on the cover of a magazine.”
GH: Every time Halima gets a cover, I post it. I’m so excited to see what you will do, and I’m going to cheer you on all the way.
HA: Thank you.
GH: So tell me about your experience with the Miss Maine pageant.
HA: That was so good. There’s not a lot of diversity in Maine, so when they saw a Muslim woman competing, they were so proud. At the same time, the whole town, literally, except for a few people, were giving me dirty looks. But I just went up there and slayed. The judges didn’t pick me because you don’t see Muslim women being chosen for pageants.
GH: You need courage to put yourself out there, especially when you’re the first at what you do. Know that with every time that you hear “no,” you’re working your way toward “yes.”
HA: That’s so true. Every “no” is getting me closer to my goals. I feel like everything is planned.
GH: There’s always a little bit of destiny. I think that you’re on the right path. That’s what UNICEF is amazing for: helping children out of difficult situations, because you never know what possibilities lie ahead.
HA:That’s really true. UNICEF has done so much for me and my family.
GH: It’s also amazing because here you are telling your story for so many people to hear in CR Fashion Book. You’re beautiful, and you’re going to be such a voice not only for refugees around the world, but for Muslim women in the fashion industry.
HA: It’s a very exciting moment.
GH: There are still so many children seeking a better future. Are there any words of hope you’d like to tell those kids?
HA: No matter where you are in the world and what your situation is, keep dreaming and know that your dreams are valid. Bad situations are only temporary. It will get better. Know that there’s hope out there and that people are advocating for you.
CR Fashion Book Issue 13 will be on newsstands starting September 13, 2018. To pre-order an advance copy, email online[at]crfashionbook.com, and sign up for our newsletter for exclusive stories from the new issue.
PHOTOGRAPHS PIETER HUGO
FASHION CARINE ROITFELD
MAKEUP KANAKO TAKASE
MANICURE MEI KAWAJIRI
CASTING EVELIEN JOOS
LOCATION THE 1896
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