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‘I realised my real passion is helping refugees’

Volunteer Samira's found her calling in supporting the voiceless
© ICS / VSO / Peter Caton
Volunteer Samira's found her calling in supporting the voiceless

When Somalia-born and London-raised Samira Hashi, visited Somalia for the first time for a BBC TV documentary it made a big impression. It led Samira to volunteer with ICS in Cambodia and leave a successful modelling career to campaign around female genital mutilation and found a charity to help refugees.

I was born in Somalia in 1990 as war was breaking. My family fled to a refugee camp in Kenya, but I come from a huge family so we had relatives in the UK and the US who helped get us out. We moved to London when I was three. We moved to north west London, where I went to school. I still live in the area: I love it.

I don’t remember the refugee camp because I was only a baby. After we left, I had quite a Western lifestyle. As a child, I always wanted to be a model – or at least work in the creative industries, maybe as a fashion designer or a dancer. When I was 17, I was scouted in the street in central London and started modelling. At first, I was passionate about it; I liked the creative nature of the industry.

Samira featured in a BBC documentary about her escape from Somalia
© BBC
Samira featured in a BBC documentary about her escape from Somalia

In 2011, I was approached by the BBC. They asked me to go to Somalia and make a documentary. They wanted to film someone returning home for the first time. I was 20. We visited refugee camps and met people whose children had died. The experience was quite traumatic and it changed everything for me. When I came back to London I found it hard to go back to modelling; fashion just didn’t feel like the right path for me anymore. I realised my real passion is helping refugees.

In London, I started doing charity work, including campaigning against female genital mutilation (FGM), which is prevalent in Somalia. The practice has severely impacted my family, I want to write a book about it. We didn’t talk about it at all when I was growing up. We still don’t. That’s the reality of FGM; no one talks about it. Things are changing slowly, but there is still so much more we can do in terms of awareness-raising.

Samira was based in the rural village of Stung Treng in Cambodia, where she worked with farmers
© VSO / ICS / Peter Caton
Samira was based in the rural village of Stung Treng in Cambodia, where she worked with farmers

In 2014, I was lucky enough to get an International Citizen Service (ICS) placement. I wanted to give back and the placement offered me the chance to do that. I went to Stung Treng in north east Cambodia, to a very rural area where most people didn’t know much about diet and nutrition. Farmers were using pesticides on crops, which were damaging their health, so we did research and ran workshops with local and national volunteers about the damage.

We didn’t talk about FGM at all when I was growing up. We still don’t. That’s the reality of it. There's so much to do.
Samira Hashi
VSO ICS, Cambodia, 2014
Samira Hashi

It was an amazing experience because it was completely opposite to my life in London. I lived in a place with no electricity, in a house built from wood and on stilts to protect it from flooding. The struggles people faced were so different. It was a real eye-opener realising how people live in different cultures.

Doing ICS gave me experience of volunteering abroad. It taught me the value of volunteers; they’re so important to organisations. I learned how important it is to train people to be self-sufficient and to equip them with the right tools to help themselves, rather than just donating money.

Now back from placement, Samira has set up her own refugee charity, TruthUnited
© VSO / ICS / Peter Caton
Now back from placement, Samira has set up her own refugee charity, TruthUnited

After ICS, when I got back to London I went to university – I had been too fixated on modelling to go before – and did a degree in International Development. Now I am setting up my own charity, TruthUnited, to support refugees with housing, food and clothes.

I am passionate about giving and community work. Over winter I’ve been handing out clothes to the homeless and now I am setting up my own charity, TruthUnited, to support refugees with housing, food and clothes.

I’m still passionate about fighting FGM. I go into schools in London and talk to at-risk girls; young Somalians and girls of East African heritage, predominantly from my community. We sit down and share everything we know about the practice. I’ve realised FGM is still so ingrained, but there’s so little information about it. I’m trying to do more research to change this. I let girls know that it is wrong and illegal and if they are at risk they need to say something.

"I’ve realised FGM is still so ingrained, but there’s so little information about it"
© VSO / ICS / Peter Caton
"I’ve realised FGM is still so ingrained, but there’s so little information about it"

I show the school girls the documentary I made and get them involved in a project, like a fashion show or a bake sale, to raise money to help educate more young people and to support FGM survivors with things like deinfibulation, a procedure to reopen the vagina, and trauma therapy.

One day, I’d like to go back to Somalia and set up a charity project. But it’s easier to relate to girls here [in the UK]. In Somalia, people sometimes told me to go home because they perceived me as too Westernised. Some didn’t even believe I was Somalian.

Working there will be a challenge, but that will not stop me from returning.