13 November 2018

Somalia: Meet Kafia Mahdi, the Somali Refugee Turned Fashion Model

Photo: Netta Bajrami/UNHCR
Kafia Mahdi models a leopard-skin patterned dress for a Hungarian online fashion store.

Fleeing forced marriage and in pursuit of an education, Kafia Mahdi left Somalia. After almost a year, she crossed from Serbia into Hungary where she has remained under protected status. It is in Hungary that the 19-year-old's transformation from child refugee to fashion star has occurred.

Growing up in the southern region of Somalia, Kafia Mahdi was almost forced into marriage at the age of 14 by her father. Instead of suffering this fate and in pursuit of an education, Mahdi left Somalia, her mother and her siblings to venture into the unknown.

According to an article by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, telling the story of Mahdi's journey, she just "wanted to be in a safe place".

At 15, she made a long and difficult journey spanning a year to the Hungarian border, where she was stopped along with other refugees as the authorities sorted them by age. Older refugees were sent to reception centres, under-aged ones into care and those of Mahdi's age went to an orphanage near Budapest.

"I didn't even know where we were," she says. "I had no idea what language they (the border guards) were speaking. But I didn't care. I just wanted to be in a safe place."

Talking about the orphanage, she went on to say, "I felt pretty bad," she says. "There was only one other girl, also from Somalia, and at first we had to share accommodation with the boys. But the social workers were kind and I decided to make an effort. I started to learn Hungarian. When you speak Hungarian, you understand the people. They are straightforward and nice."

From the orphanage Mahdi was moved to a shelter for troubled teenagers, a placement that seems based on the housing necessity. She persisted with her studies throughout.

Due to her striking looks, she began to get modelling offers. Although she was sceptical at first, she accepted work from a recommended agency. Work offers started to come in.

Her life as a documentary

All these events have been documented in a film titled Easy Lessons (Könnyű Leckék) by Hungarian director Dorottya Zurbó. "Working on the film was challenging," Mahdi said ahead of the documentary's release in Hungarian cinemas. "I had to share my full story, my feelings and my deepest thoughts, which I always find hard to express. But after a while, I got to know the crew and that made me comfortable to open up about a lot of things."

The documentary also gives insight into her internal struggle: although Mahdi works regular jobs outside modelling as a ticket checker at a cinema and as a receptionist at a magazine, she wonders what her mother would make of the life she has created.

"I'm so afraid," she tells her mother through the film. "If you knew what I do, what would you say? Would you despise me?"

Mahdi remains ever humble and hopes that the film will help others like her. "The film has made me more noticeable but I don't really consider myself a star. I hope it will help other refugees by showing them that they are capable of doing anything."

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