Hanaa Ben Abdesslem: the trip of a lifetime

Hanaa Ben Abdesslem: the trip of a lifetime

"Is that it? Is that the refugee camp?”

Editor: Buro 24/7

Image: Hanaa Ben Abdesslem

Tunisian model and philanthropist Hanaa Ben Abdesslem shares an inspiring journey exclusively with Buro 24/7 Middle East

I wasn't sure if I was dreaming or having an illusion. My heart was beating ever so quick and I had to pinch myself to realise that the flashing lights, bright projectors, lavish & luxurious décor, the seating alignment facing the circled shape catwalk, was not a dream. It was a reality. My reality, long awaited burning desire & ambition of walking down the Chanel couture catwalk.

I am finally here. I must admit, I had to go through rejections, fear, disappointments throughout the last year but persevering was worthwhile.

As I now exit towards the audience, I stand tall and proud; Chanel from head to toe.  I am a Chanel lady as a walk and all eyes stare at me in admiration.

All the hours of preparation backstage, fittings, make up and hair for 10 short minutes of fame. You become a star and the paparazzi wait for you at the back door as you exit the building. They called my name "Hanaa, look this way!". I smiled & posed while they asked me questions about the brand of my boots, my handbag and clothes.

I get in the car waiting for me and tell the driver 'To Charles de Gaulle airport" and at the same time I grab my mobile and call my brother in Tunisia. I reassure him all is according to schedule, he can confirm arrangements and I will be arriving on time.

As I land at the International Airport of Carthage, my brother meets me and he seems anxious. He tells me we have to hurry to the domestic flight terminal if we want to catch the flight to Djerba on time (south of Tunisia).

Inaugural column by Hanaa Ben Abdesslem

By the time we land in Djerba its late at night. We rent a van from the Djerba airport and head into the town to spend the night at a friend’s house. At the crack of dawn we are back in the van driving to a supermarket and fill the van with food, water and blankets. Its cold and I rub my hands to keep warm as we drive for over an hour in an empty highway crossing the desert.

From a far distance I see a white mirage and I ask my brother “Is that it? Is that the refugee camp?”

As we get nearer, I see white tents one after the other. We finally arrive at the refugee camp called 'Ras Jdir' .  We stop the van and my is once again heart beating ever so quick. I am stunned at what I see. On the far left a group of refugees fighting over a loaf of bread, women wailing, children crying.  I see Red Cross stands and other volunteers distributing supplies and caring for the needy.

Inaugural column by Hanaa Ben Abdesslem


We discreetly take some supplies from the van and walk over to different tents and begin distributing. I am afraid I might get noticed and swarmed with the hungry crowds so I move quickly and swiftly from one tent to the next.

A little girl is staring at me and she is silently behind my every step. She suddenly grabs my hand and pulls me to follow her and I do. She leads me into a tent where her mother just gave birth to a beautiful little girl named Meriem. I sit on the ground with the family and hold this miracle baby in my arms.  I look around me in the crowded tent and I see sad eyes and helpless faces staring at me. They know nothing of models, of Chanel or Paris. All they care to know is how they will survive until the next day.

Inaugural column by Hanaa Ben Abdesslem

As we drove away from the camp, I sit silently in the van thinking – remembering. It was hard to believe that just the night before I was in a different world, walking the catwalk in Chanel couture surrounded by glamour and glitter.

However, the walk through the camp between the ill, the hungry and the desperate is an image, and reality, I will never be able to let go of.