Ubah Hassan’s modelling career is marked with Ralph Lauren campaigns and Steven Meisel editorials. Yet the Somalia-born, Vancouver-raised Canadian has even bigger goals in mind. This spring, Hassan, 28, wields an umbrella not to model, but to save lives. As president and co-founder of a charitable organization called Maji Umbrellas, she is working in partnership with Oxfam America to help provide clean drinking water throughout East Africa, from the sale of a simple umbrella.
What was it like when you first came to Toronto at age 14? There was snow and it was very cold. We stayed in a shelter for eight months—it was a big room with one bathroom, three beds and a microwave, which is the best thing ever invented.
Was it the first time you had seen snow? Yes! I honestly went out and ate the snow. I couldn’t believe it.
You split your time between New York and Vancouver—what do you like most about B.C.? Hiking, camping, skiing. I can drive to Whistler [and see] the most surreal view.
What makes Canada feel like home? Being on [Canadian] soil…it’s like someone is holding me, supporting me. It’s like they’re cheering.
How did you get started in modelling? A photographer saw me in Minoru Park in Richmond, B.C. I went to New York with $150 cash and I didn’t know a soul. I was terrified, excited. I went to a models’ apartment—two tiny bedrooms with four bunk beds—and I was like, Is this a shelter again? [laughs]
What has been the highlight of your career? The first Italian Vogue all-black issue [July 2008]. I was done in less than five minutes. I thought, This guy Steven Meisel, I really disappointed him. But when the issue came out, I was like, My name is on the cover! I started getting work [after that].
What prompted you to start your organization? The news [about the drought] was everywhere and I thought, I need to do something. [In Somalia] there can be no water for weeks. You have to go to another area to get water; it’s an entire-day event. Nowadays I wake up and the first thing I do is drink a glass of water. Imagine not being able to do that?
Why umbrellas? We are hoping that when people carry it, they can say, “We are making a difference,” and that people are humble enough to know that [while they might hate] the rain, there are people who are praying for it.
Watch Now: Ubah Hassan on the street with her Maji Umbrellas to support Oxfam America’s work in the Horn of Africa.