To most who know or have heard of me, I'm Halima Aden, model. But long before I was the first model to wear a hijab on the cover of a major magazine or the first woman to wear a burkini in Sports Illustrated, I was just a child in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where my family resettled after fleeing the civil war in Somalia. My childhood was happy, despite bouts of malaria and nights when I couldn’t sleep due to hunger. Through it all, I knew that I was safe.
That isn’t the case for all refugees.
This month I traveled with UNICEF USA to Italy, where I met with migrants and refugees who have been through hell. Since 2014, more than 70,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived, and 86 percent of them are 16 and 17. Imagine that: These kids aren’t thinking about getting their driver’s licenses or going on first dates. They are thinking about taking a journey that will put their life at risk to escape conflict, trafficking, and other crimes against humanity.
The route is not an easy one. After walking through the desert for weeks or months, they face a harrowing passage across the Mediterranean Sea that one in 11 people do not survive. When they reach the shores of Italy, they are safer, but their troubles are not behind them.
At a UNICEF-supported reception center in Palermo, I met with eight resilient young women who survived the journey but are still waiting to receive legal documentation. I met with Petra, who made the trek to Italy without any family but continues to light up rooms with her infectious laugh. I met with Gabby, who has experienced pain and violence that no girl should ever know but has the voice of an angel that could move anyone to tears. I met with Patience, who has been waiting for documentation in Palermo for almost two years but whose conviction has never wavered.
“We refugee girls in Italy have a bright future and want a bright future and have plans to become something amazing in life. We don’t want to stay at the reception center,” she told me. “We want jobs and we know we need education to make that happen. Living here is not easy, but every day I work to show the Italian community that we are capable of being a part of this country. We are not just depending on their documents; we have skills, we have ideas, and we want to change the world.”
Patience wants to become a lawyer one day. She knows nothing will be handed to her and that she needs to optimize every opportunity that is presented to her to make her dreams come true. But she needs our help. Unaccompanied minors like Patience need to be protected from exploitation and violence and to be provided access to psychosocial support. Lawmakers around the world must take action to combat the root causes of violence and poverty pushing children and adolescents to flee. And it’s our responsibility to stand up for what is right and to remember that no matter their status, their location or their background, children are children.
We must use our collective voice to remind those empowered within our governments that there is no place for politics when it comes to children. As a former refugee, I implore you to remember that and support organizations like UNICEF that are working to make sure children all over the world have opportunities not just to survive, but to thrive. We will all be richer for it.
Today is World Humanitarian Day, a day to reflect on the incredible responsibility humanitarians have and to remember the lives that have been lost while serving others. Join me in honoring their legacies and creating your own.
Halima Aden is a model and UNICEF ambassador.
Originally Appeared on Glamour