Supermodel Iman: 'I See in Every Refugee What My Life Story Could Have Been'

She’s a supermodel, an activist and an entrepreneur (one of the first to have a makeup line for African-American, Asian, Latina and multi-cultural women), but Iman says at heart, she will always be a refugee: "It never leaves you."

In this week's PEOPLE, the 65 year old style icon tells the story of her family's escape from Somalia in 1972. "My family left in the middle of the night, with just the clothes on our backs, and crossed the border from Somalia to Kenya. My father was a diplomat, and people who worked for the government were being executed or put in jail. I was a 16-year-old who'd never been on her own and never worked. All of a sudden, I was without my family and on my own in a foreign country."

That experience inspired her to use her voice to support the needs of refugees and to become the first-ever global ambassador for CARE, a non-profit organization that fights poverty and world hunger. "If it wasn't for non-government agencies [like CARE] who protected me and checked on me every day to make sure I was okay, protecting girls and women especially, I don't know what my trajectory would have been," says Iman. "I've never forgotten them."

"CARE is a humanitarian organization fighting global poverty by helping refugees with emergency relief and supporting women and girls," says Iman. "If you empower a woman, she will empower not only her family but also her community and her country at large. Women and girls really are the caretakers of a whole nation."

For more on Iman and her work with CARE, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday. 

At a time when refugees are often being turned away worldwide, Iman says, "They come from war-torn places that are not safe, where their communities and their families are not safe. What people don't understand about refugees is that they are like all of us, looking for a better way to live, a safe way to raise their children, with the same dreams and desires we all have."

"We do become part of the society, of the nation that takes us in," she adds. "I'm an American citizen. I'm grateful to America to have given me a home and a career. I love this country. America is a nation made of immigrants. So Americans are the first people who should understand what an immigrant and what a refugee is."

Despite widespread political unrest — and other unprecedented events of 2020, including the coronavirus pandemic and the fight against racial injustice — Iman remains optimistic about the future. And she's inspired by Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom she met this past February 2020.

"Something that will never leave me, is something she said and that was: 'In my long life, I have seen great changes, and that's what makes me an optimist for the future.'"

Says Iman: "We cannot lose hope.If history has taught us anything, it's that we should not repeat our old mistakes and there is always room for change."

"Seeing all the young people now at the forefront of climate change, the fight against global poverty, speaking out for racial justice, that keeps me optimistic," she says. "They're not waiting for us. They're going to take their own path and they are making the changes that we need to make."

That's especially true this October 11, which marks The International Day of the Girl when CARE is focusing on the Safe From Start Act, a bill that will earmark emergency funds for the needs of woman and girls. Notes Iman: "It's a moment to celebrate the incredible things that girls can achieve when provided with the tools and resources they need to reach their potential."

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