Taking part in the prestigious event in Rwanda known as Kigali Fashion Week is a group of 10 Burundian refugees from Mahama Camp whose dreams of one day entering the world of fashion became a reality for one night at the Serena Hotel. In partnership with the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIDIMAR) and Rwandan fashion designers, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) transported these remarkable youth refugees to Kigali so they could bring their love of design and modeling to the big city.
Seen modeling on the catwalk were 21-year old Yvette Kayitana and her peer Merci-Guy Iradukunda. Yvette is a student in modern languages at Paysannat L School, a local school near Mahama Camp where refugees and host community students learn side by side in classrooms constructed by UNHCR. The day before the first show, Yvette and her fellow models were in a shoe shop in Kigali getting ready for their first venture onto the walkway. “This is a great opportunity to let the whole world see what refugees look like,” Yvette remarked while trying on a pair of heels. “We are normal people like them, they have a dream we have dreams as well, they have talents and so do we.” A conversation among the group of young refugees struck.
“When my family and I came to Rwanda as refugees, I had to start life from scratch. Being a refugee is a constant struggle, especially emotionally as my heart and mind are always with my family and my people of Burundi,” said Merci-Guy. He fled to Rwanda with his mother and two young sisters after his father was imprisoned in Burundi following election-related violence that broke out in April 2015. Merci-Guy knew from the moment his father was taken away that he had to now take care of his family. Looking ahead to the evening’s event, a fashion show at the residence of the Ambassador of Belgium, Merci-Guy sees it as “an occasion to make the audience realize how much talent, intellect, and inspiration those coming to Rwanda as refugees can contribute to the country.”
The refugee models first made themselves known on International Women’s Day, when the UNHCR Representative, Ministers of MIDIMAR and Gender, and Ambassadors of Netherlands and Egypt visited Mahama Camp to inaugurate UNHCR’s new Opportunity Center for Women and Girls. As part of the festivities, 10 refugee girls and boys had prepared a fashion show. They didn’t have a catwalk or designer clothing, but they were so professional that their modeling became the highlight of the day. News of their camp fashion show spread, which is how Rwandan designer Amedy Kamakiza approached UNHCR to arrange for the refugee models to appear in the fashion week events. “Their story is so inspiring, it will be a highlight for the audience, but I also hope that it will inspire the other refugees in the country to see that refugees can achieve their dreams like anyone else,” said Amedy.
“Being a refugee is sad, but being invited to participate in Kigali Fashion Week, I am so impressed how welcoming everyone is.” said Yvette the day after the fashion show. “We are ready to conquer the world!” Both Yvette and Merci-Guy have a dream to become big models one day in the hope of inspiring others that being a refugee does not stop anyone from realizing their dreams.