Zohre Esmaeli | Photo: A. Krizanovic via Deutsche Welle
Zohre Esmaeli | Photo: A. Krizanovic via Deutsche Welle

The Afghan born fashion model and entrepreneur Zohre Esmaeli was this year’s guest speaker at the "Days of Exile" event hosted by the Körber-Stiftung, a foundation based in Hamburg, Germany.

The Afghan entrepreneur and author Zohre Esmaeli was the guest speaker at this year's "Speech on Exile" on April 26 hosted by the Körber-Stiftung. The annual "Days of Exile" event series brings together around 60 partners from the Hamburg metropolitan area, including Hamburg's cultural and educational institutions, as well as civil society and local representatives.

In her address she described why she had to leave her native country, the tension between her traditional culture and her new freedom, while also highlighting the losses, opportunities and the meaning of a life in exile.


New beginnings

Esmaeli was born and raised in Afghanistan's capital Kabul. She fled to Germany with her family in 1998 when she was 13 years old, to escape the brutal civil war and the Taliban regime.

They had to embark on a treacherous six-month journey across five countries, before finally reaching the state of Bavaria in south of Germany where they were able to seek asylum.

After becoming a model at 17 years old, she worked around the world as Afghanistan's first international top model. Since then she has been building a career as a designer and author.

Culture Clash

Her story is layered with complex culture clashes between her inherited traditions and those of the new world she inhabited, especially in terms of values, attitudes and expectations. The complexities of balancing two vastly different cultures has had an impact on many aspects of her life and has made her face various forms of 'otherness’, Esmaeli told DW in an interview in 2017.

She described that as a child she was bullied at a German school she attended for being a foreigner, while at home she faced pressure to enter an arranged marriage and objections to her modelling career. Despite having experienced gender discrimination and racism, she explained that she wants to set a positive example of how to treat others.

Her unique experiences have shaped her life and inspired her to write her book "Meine neue Freiheit" ("My new freedom") which was published in 2014. She carries out a lot of social and educational work, in describing her social engagement to the Körber-Stifung she states: "Where veils once hung, today I show the face of a diverse future."

Life in exile

In her speech she talked about discrimination she has faced, but also highlights the opportunities and the freedom she now enjoys in exile. She stated that exile does not only relate to a place but it is triggered by man-made barriers such as prejudice, oppression, poverty, aggression and injustice. 

However she added that longing for freedom is greater than any of these barriers and this can spark hope and push people to achieve their goals. To Esmaeli exile also means strength and this can allow people the to search for this freedom and find it.

During the "Days of Exile" event, personal narratives of a new beginning in exile are examined from a historical and contemporary perspective. The focus of the program is on individual stories and the exchange of these experiences. Visitors can follow readings, discussions, exhibitions and performances on the subject online. This year's event was the fifth edition of the series.