Halima Aden Speaks To UNICEF CEO Caryl Stern for CR13
Cover star and model Halima Aden sat down with United Nations Children's Fund's (UNICEF) CEO Caryl M. Stern for a conversation about the global refugee crisis. Stern has headed the organization's efforts to raise money to aid children impacted by disasters including the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2011 East Africa drought, and the current Ebola crisis. It's also a subject that hits close to home for Aden, who grew up in a Kenyan refugee camp until she moved to the U.S. with her family when she was six. Read on for more of their conversation about advocacy for children and refugees.
Halima Aden: Tell me about your journey deciding that UNICEF was your calling.
Caryl M. Stern: I’ve always worked in helping professions. My mother was a child refugee who came to America when she was six with her four-year-old brother and without their parents. The Nazis had invaded Vienna and the only way her mom could save their lives was to send them to the United States. They couldn’t get visas for everyone, so she came by herself with a woman who the family knew but when they got to the states, the woman deposited them in an orphanage on the lower east side of New York. I grew up with that story, always hearing about the difficult choice her mom had to make and then also this woman who saved their lives. My mother believed that one person could make a difference and that she would raise her children to make a difference. I worked with her for many years in the civil rights movement and then UNICEF called me. They said, “We’re going to take you to Africa, put a baby in your arms, and teach you how to immunize that child. If you did nothing else for the rest of your life, you will have immunized a child and saved a life.” How do you turn down that job?
HA: That’s true. What has been your proudest accomplishment working with UNICEF?
CS: There’s been so many amazing moments in 12 years, some little moments and some big moments, but equally proud moments. There’s the moment when I’m in a refugee camp and the kid who wouldn’t talk to anybody all day puts his hand out and takes mine. I just melt. Those moments you say, “Wow, how lucky am I to do this work and be here in this moment with this child.” Then there are the big moments when we raised more money than anyone or when we’ve gotten amazing media hits or the moment that our voice has helped to make a difference.
HA: Wow. I was six and I can still remember that UNICEF sign and every single missionary who came to the camp. I forget names, but can never forget how they made me feel.
HA: How can we bridge fashion with UNICEF?
CA: Fashion icons are influencers. The fact that CR Fashion Book is choosing to take very precious space—a gift from my wildest dream since our budget would never afford to buy that space—is phenomenal. It sets a tone then to every reader and every follower that this is important. It will bring the world to have a discussion in a place it might not otherwise happen.
When you stand up for the world’s children, you give voice to those whose voices are not being heard. So the opportunity to have leaders in fashion do that is pretty spectacular. You don’t have to do this. I’m paid to do this. The fact that you so generously choose to give that gift to UNICEF and to the world's children is remarkable.
HA: I think I do get paid. Maybe not in money, but definitely in rewarding feelings. I think that beats any amount of money that anybody could give you.
CS: It’s those moments when you feel like you are making a difference in the life of a child or a mother. What were you expecting when you came to America?
HA: I honestly thought money grew on trees and that we would move into a big house. That’s what you see on TV. We moved to St. Louis and it wasn’t easy. The area that we lived in was very crime-filled. The school didn’t have an ESL program, so every day I went to school and never learned anything. The first six months of living in America, I actually wanted nothing more than to return to the camp. Isn’t that insane? I missed my friends and the staff. My mom used to say that “home spit us out and wouldn’t let us return.” That’s why every refugee longs for acceptance. Will I be welcomed with open arms or will I be sent back or will I endure something even worse than staying? Sometimes it feels like being between a rock and a hard place. My mom always used to say that home is where you make it.
The name of my camp was “Kakuma.” The literal translation in Swahili is “nowhere," and that was the home that brought me hope. It takes a village to raise a child. My mom was still illiterate and going through her own traumas, just escaping a war, coming to a new country, and now raising kids. My teachers were like second parents. They stayed after school with me and helped me with homework. They weren't even paid to do that.
CS: But they cared.
HA: I just wish for every child in this world to have a good support system, like mine that fought for me to succeed. What can we be doing to support refugees and migrants?
Caryl: People can use their voices and welcome refugees to communities, especially the ones who are already here. We have to really get people to be less xenophobic and to understand that people are people. You and I are so different, yet so alike. As we vote in elections, challenge our leaders, no matter what country or town or state we’re in, to have a platform around children. Will they put children first? Vote accordingly. People also can support UNICEF and our ability to do what we do. It takes a lot to make it come together, so financial support is so critical. Most importantly, we have to look at the root causes forcing people to leave. Then we won’t have immigration issues on our borders. What’s within our power to make change that makes it safe for them to stay where they want to be, which is home?
HA: That’s incredible.
CS: I just think that we, as a country, many times make it into a political issue and there is nothing political about saving the life of a child. We have to stop. We have to separate the political issues from the moral and practical obligations as people. How do we ensure that child has a future, is safe, and has the right to stay with their family? And whatever the bad, if you will, in their home country, how do we get that bad out and create a safe place for a child?
HA: Right. That’s the thing that tugs at my heart with UNICEF. I think of Advocacy Day, when we went to Capitol Hill, and I got to talk to both sides: Republicans and Democrats.
CS: It’s not a partisan issue.
HA: My favorite UNICEF quote is “A child in need knows no politics.” Why is it sometimes so hard for us as adults to put the politics aside and just view it as what it is?
CS: It is really hard. Children don’t get to pick where they’re born. They surely wouldn’t pick poverty, they wouldn’t pick hunger, they wouldn’t pick a conflict zone, they wouldn’t pick a refugee camp. We’re born where we’re born, and that’s why we have to start seeing children as children.