In 2005, Yasmin Warsame returned to see her mother in Galkayo, a Somalian village nine hours from Mogadishu. It was the first time she had been back to the country of her birth in over 20 years.
"I was walking down the street in the middle of Galkayo, dressed like all the girls, covered up in a long dress with a head scarf on," Ms. Warsame remembers. "I looked like all the other girls there. I wasn't anything special, and yet I have had the opportunity to live in a different place and have a different kind of life."
The 5-foot-11 Canadian supermodel and judge on Canada's Next Top Model has been internationally celebrated for her East African beauty. She was once dubbed "the next Iman" by Michael Kors.
So the visit to her mother's village had a profound effect on her. "I think I was meant to come out of that country but not forget them," she says.
Upon her return to Canada, she became involved with The African Future, a Toronto-based non-governmental organization that focuses on the improvement of educational and medical communities in Somalia. Last fall, it helped raise money to feed more than 1,400 IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp residents over Ramadan.
"I could see the money we raised going directly to the people," she says of her decision to become involved. "Me and this organization may not be able to take care of all of Somalia's problems, but we can feed some people and give them the experience of what it feels like to have a good, full meal."
One of the organization's other initiatives, 10X10X10, aims to put 10 medical machines into 10 communities in Somalia by Oct. 10, 2010.
As she became successful as a model on the global stage, Ms. Warsame encountered many misconceptions about Africa. "One of the things that a lot of people feel is that it's too wild, too crazy, too unreachable, too dangerous. For this reason, many people have washed their hands of it."
If people have a warped view of Africa, Somalia suffers the worst distortion, she feels. "People always say, 'Oh, are you a pirate?' when I tell them I'm from Somalia," she says, laughing. "But I tell them that there's far more to the country than that one problem. Not all of it is divided by war, for example. Where my mom lives, all the tribes live peacefully together."
Ms. Warsame's ability to celebrate where she comes from took many years of feeling she didn't belong anywhere.
Born in Mogadishu the last of 21 children, Ms. Warsame was raised by older siblings after her father, who had three wives, died. When she was 5, Ms. Warsame was put into the care of an older sister while her mother, Dahabo, which means "golden," stayed in Galkayo. Ms. Warsame moved to Kenya and then Zambia, and at 9 was living in London.
There, she felt alienated. "It's difficult for me to say I belonged," she says. "As far as the British are concerned, to be British you have to look British."
She read about Canada, where some of her siblings lived, and liked its multicultural promise. When she was 15, she immigrated here.
In Toronto, after high school, she worked in a medical clinic and attended Seneca College to study psychology and sociology. At 19, she entered a marriage that would last four years before ending in divorce.
By that point, she had been approached to model, and after some hesitation - "Anything to do with exposing your body is akin to prostitution in the Muslim culture," she explains - she decided to give it a try. Her first shoot took place when she was five months pregnant with her son, Hamzah. But her beauty was unfamiliar, and not easily marketable.
"East Africans have a certain look. I'm not going to apologize for it," she says. "I'm actually proud of it. But I'm not really in the heads [of some modelling agencies]as the right black, and I don't look like a white girl. That put me in a position where they didn't know what to do with me."
She thought about quitting the business. But in 2002 she switched agencies. "Within three weeks, I was on my way to Paris to see Tom Ford, and he loved me. And I was on the runway for Chanel, and I didn't even know how to walk in heels!"
That same year, she was featured in a spread for Italian Vogue, photographed by Steven Meisel.
Ms. Warsame still lives in Toronto even though her work for clients such as H&M, Banana Republic, Elle magazine, Neiman Marcus and Ralph Lauren is mostly in Europe and the United States.
"I chose not to raise my kid in New York and not in Europe, although I had those choices," she says. "My son's dad lives here, and I try to keep them together."
She has seen progress in the acceptance of black models, but she hopes for more. "Let's not eliminate the beauty of the world and the very many different ways that we look from the runway."
It's easy to feel that some racism subtly endures in the fashion industry, she says. "They talk in a way as though colour is a season. They will say, 'This season we're not using blacks, or not for this campaign.' "
Still, Ms. Warsame finds it unconstructive to point fingers. Besides, the issue may be as simple as a designer's vision, she says. "They have a vision for whatever it may be, and if they have that vision, they're allowed to have it and to bring it to the runway."
In Galkayo, her work confuses some people. "My mother looks at those modelling images of me, and she's, like, 'What's that on your head? What's that on your feet?' "
Ms. Warsame laughs at the incongruity of her African roots and her haute-couture life.
"I'm a multicultural woman," she explains. "I can go home and eat with my hands and I can come back and do my modelling. It's wonderful."