Born in Burundi and now living in New York City, model and activist Leila Nda is doing her part to change the world. When not serving looks for Victoria’s Secret or Versace, the 29-year old is working with Maggy Barankitse’s Maison Shalom to bring attention to the refugee crisis in her native land. Here, the stunner shares her journey in the season’s festival-worthy prints, distressed denim and breezy basics.
ESSENCE: Tell us about fleeing civil war in Burundi before getting signed by a modeling agency in Belgium.
LEILA NDA: As a child, I didn’t understand the challenges adults faced every day, but I knew I wanted to live in a place where I didn’t have to hear gunshots or fear death.
ESSENCE: How did you first connect with Maggy Barankitse and the humanitarian group she founded?
NDA: Maggy built Maison Shalom 25 years ago, so I grew up knowing of the work she’d done to help orphans. She is called the “National Mother of Burundi,” and has always been an inspiration for her love, compassion and strength. It was a huge honor to meet her. Since then I’ve been trying to raise awareness of the thousands forced to flee Burundi, who now live in refugee camps in Rwanda. I want to help those displaced by war get their dignity back and be able to dream again.
ESSENCE: How has your own experience with involuntary displacement informed the work that you are doing to affect change?
NDA: I can relate to those who fled Burundi because of hard circumstances and left everything behind—house, family and friends—to start over. I thank God for the support system that my family and I had when we arrived in Belgium.
ESSENCE: What do you think is the biggest misconception about your native Burundi and the plight of refugees?
NDA: That Burundi is just a poor country that has only known wars. It’s actually a beautiful country that is home to Lake Tanganyika (one of the largest lakes in Africa), we have protected animal parks and the weather is amazing. Burundi is called “The heart of Africa.”
ESSENCE: Why is it important for all people to care about refugees?
NDA: As an African girl, I also spent half of my life in Brussels, and I’ve been living in New York now for more than five years. I consider myself a citizen of the world, so I feel concern for all international crises. Everyone can get involved by supporting a cause and trying to make a difference in some part of the world that has been forgotten.
Photography by Yachim Parham/ Styling by Peju Famojure