Garissa, Kenya Twenty-one-year-old Khadija Omar stands by the trough at a giraffe sanctuary in Garissa County, northern Kenya, wearing a silk sash that reads Miss Somalia and a fashionable wide-brimmed sun hat to protect her flawless skin from the blazing midday heat.
She is shadowing National Geographic Explorer Abdullahi Ali, a wildlife biologist and one of the world’s foremost giraffe and endangered hirola antelope conservation experts, during a trip to northern Kenya to learn about the effects of climate change on wildlife in the area. Ali pours a sack of dried acacia pods into the trough and explains that there has been no rain in the region for months and therefore no food for the animals to eat. The team at the giraffe sanctuary is keeping them alive on the pods and water trucked in from the nearby Tana River. Omar, recently crowned Miss Somalia, listens attentively. Then she takes her phone out for a well-timed selfie—herself in the foreground, the hungry giraffes in the background.
This region has been battered by climate change. Several consecutive seasons of poor rainfall have caused drought across Garissa, Wajir, and Mandera counties. Wildlife and livestock have dropped dead because of starvation and thirst. Nearly 20 million people in the Horn of Africa are suffering from hunger and lack of income.
Omar is the first woman to represent Somalia, a conservative and conflict-struck nation, in a beauty competition. Just days after this visit to the Kenyan sanctuary, she flies to Puerto Rico to participate in the Miss World pageant, where she places in the top 12 final contestants.
In recent years, due to mounting criticism about what some deem as an anti-feminist inclination of the pageantry, many beauty competitions have pivoted toward putting more emphasis on the education and intelligence of the contestants. Each woman who participates in the Miss World pageant is asked to choose an activist platform to promote during their year-long reign. Omar chose climate change in the Horn of Africa.
Born in a refugee camp
Omar was born to Somali parents in the Dadaab refugee camp in Garissa County and lived there until she was nine years old. Her mother fled intense fighting in Somalia and joined the hundreds of thousands of people who have escaped the country in the past 30 years. As of January 2020, the United Nations has recorded more than 750,000 Somali refugees living in neighboring countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, and Yemen.
But not all Somalis are fleeing conflict. Many have become climate refugees as worsening droughts, floods, and cyclones hit the Horn of Africa. In 2020, cyclones and floods displaced more than 1.3 million Somalis, according to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. Between January and June 2021, an estimated 68,000 people were displaced by drought and another 56,500 by floods. This was in addition to 359,000 people forced to flee conflict and insecurity, according to UN figures.
Growing up in Dadaab, which officially hosts around 220,000 mostly Somali refugees, was tumultuous. Omar’s parents told her stories about rapes and murders in the camp that have become ingrained into her memory. She also has other distressing childhood memories. “I just remember very long lines [for food and water],” she says. “I remember it was so dusty because it was really dry there.”
When Omar was nine, her family was granted asylum in Canada after waiting for visas for more than a decade. She attended school in the small city of Kitchener, Canada, but she never felt like she fit in. As a young Black woman wearing a hijab, Omar says she was picked on and ostracized by the other students. “The way that I was bullied when I was young, like that made me so insecure in myself,” Omar remembers. “I always felt like I stood out, like I was the different one.”
As she got older, Omar realized that needed to change. “I got into beauty. But I never really had that representation of someone like me,” she recalls. “Why can I not be the representation that I need for other people?”
By grade nine, Omar was applying to pageants. But her family was unable to afford the high costs—thousands of dollars in entry fees, travel, and outfits. When she graduated high school, she got a part time job at McDonalds and saved up money to compete in her first pageant, for the Miss Ontario title. She made it to the finals.
Omar was contacted about participating in the first Miss Somalia contest at the end of last year, which she won, wearing a traditional hijab headscarf, the first woman to do so during that competition.
These formative experiences shaped Omar’s world view. She became passionate about two things: representational beauty and helping the women and girls that she left behind in the refugee camp live a better life.
“The reason I care so much about climate is, right now, due to the drought, there are families who are trying to go from Somalia to come to refugee camps, and they die on the way there due to not being able to have food, not being able to have water,” she says. “And it’s sad that as a Somali, I’ve never been able to live in my country. I’ve never visited my country…That’s never going to be possible if the issue of climate is not solved.”
In her flagship video, Omar narrates a compelling montage of images of violence and climate change disasters in Somalia. “For my Beauty with a Purpose campaign, I will be working closely with UNHCR and the Somali Youth Action to assist the vulnerable by providing livelihoods and climate education programs, especially for the women and children,” she says in the video. “With this approach, I believe I will be in a position to be able to impact more Somali youth in understanding and practicing positive climate-related activities.”
In partnership with the United Nations, Omar is helping to relocate vulnerable persons from a flood-prone settlement and secure sites where internally displaced people will be provided with transitional shelter and emergency relief kits. She is also leveraging her global platform to fundraise money for them.
Omar is not the first beauty pageant contestant to talk about climate change in Africa. Georgie Badiel Liberty, a model and the 2004 Miss Africa winner from Burkina Faso, used her platform to tackle the issue of lack of drinking water in her West African homeland. As a child, Badiel Liberty remembers walking miles to fetch clean water for her family. Today, through the Georgie Badiel Foundation, she builds and restores wells in Burkina Faso and trains local women to become engineers and well maintenance experts. To date, the Foundation has provided clean water to more than 300,000 people, restored 148 wells, and built 21 wells and one solar-powered well.
“You cannot empower a woman without clean water. You cannot education a girl without clean water,” says Liberty. “Water is first.”
Omar, too, is starting an organization. K Amani is a representational beauty brand with the tagline “Be your own kind of beauty,” which Omar says will manufacture makeup made of sustainable ingredients for women of color. She also has created the K Amani Foundation, the philanthropic branch of her future business, which focuses on the various challenges facing women and girls around the world. The foundation has started by helping Somali women and girls get access to climate-friendly reusable sanitary pads in refugee camps in partnership with the organization Pad Mad Kenya. The partners will also educate them about sanitary hygiene practices and climate change.
These projects are still in their infancy. Omar is working to get partners on board who can manufacture the type of makeup she wants and to secure permission from the government of Kenya and the United Nations to visit the refugee camps. And while Omar admits that she doesn’t have the startup business acumen normally required to get the organization started, she does have passion and a growing platform.
Experts and skeptics
Celebrities and influencers getting involved in the climate change issue is not entirely straightforward. In 2017, researchers published a paper titled “Celebrities and Climate Change” that outlines some of the main challenges posed by celebrity activism, namely their superficial level of involvement and the potential to distract from the real issues of climate change destruction around the world.
“Celebrities have arguably [used]…their celebrity status to draw media and cultural attention to climate change, helping to bring it within the popular cultural sphere, as well as utilizing their fan bases to mobilize engagement and action via social media,” the paper reads. “But they have done so through what might be termed the ‘spectacle’: highly visible, eye-catching, and visually exuberant media appearances that have the potential to distract audiences from the ‘real’ environmental issues under scrutiny.”
Some of the best-known celebrity climate activists include Leonardo DiCaprio, Jane Fonda, Emma Thompson, and Pharrell Williams. The Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, is also on that list, despite recently coming under fire for advocating for climate change while flying private jets around the world.
“I’ve just seen prince William on TV preaching about climate change. I’d like to know how big the royals (and their entourage) carbon footprint is over the last 50 years?” one Twitter user posted.
But two authors of the paper, Michael K. Goodman and Julie Doyle, are optimistic about Omar’s efforts.
“One thing that is really interesting about her is her backstory,” says Goodman. “She’s speaking as a Somali refugee who has moved to Canada and is then speaking on behalf of other Somalis who are dealing with climate change and the refugee crisis. She’s able to speak from this kind of position of authenticity.”
“This is a young woman of color who has different life experiences than maybe other public figures or celebrities that she’s using to bring attention to an important issue and making connections between climate change and climate justice and refugees and migration,” says Doyle.
Omar does not yet have millions of followers. She is more of an influencer than a celebrity. But she dreams of following in the footsteps of women like Halima Aden, a Somali American fashion model with more than 1.3 million Instagram followers, who is celebrated for being the first hijabi supermodel.
For Omar, the beauty pageant is a way to make an impact even in the midst of tensions between an institution that historically focused primarily on looks and the newly empowered, purposeful women using that platform to engage in activism.
“Even if someone is using that story [to build their brand], at least it’s better than just being quiet,” Omar says. “Beauty is something that I love. It’s amazing I can use dressing up, makeup, and still impact the world.”
Neha Wadekar is an independent multimedia journalist whose work includes issues tied to climate, gender, conflict, health, human rights, emerging democracies, and politics.