From WE Day audience member to inspirational onstage speaker, Sabrin Higgi finds her voice.
By Jesse Mintz
In 2016, the refugee crisis was at its peak in the United Kingdom. Headlines trumpeted that people were streaming across the border as fear and resentment took root. Then, MTV Award-winning singer Rita Ora took the WE Day UK stage to tell a story from the side of an asylum seeker.
She shared how she landed in the UK at the age of one with her family, refugees fleeing war-ravaged Kosovo in search of a new home. When she finished speaking, 12,000 voices erupted in support.
For one young woman cheering in the audience, it felt like the pop star was speaking directly to her—as if Rita Ora was giving voice to things left unspoken in her own 14-year-old heart. “She got quite emotional, and it showed me what I was feeling but not admitting to myself,” reflects Sabrin Higgi, now 16. As Rita Ora spoke about the dangers her family escaped and the prejudice they faced in the UK, she challenged the audience of change-makers to do their part to welcome refugees. For Sabrin, this rallying call “was like a slap in the face.” As she shares, “suddenly, there was a voice in my head saying, ‘you’ve got to do something.’”
More than just a wakeup call, Sabrin recognized herself in Rita’s story. Her family also left violence and conflict and she, too, grew up on stories of a distant homeland.
Some of Sabrin’s earliest memories are from Ter Apel, a refugee centre in the north of the Netherlands. But even before those formative images of the overcrowded camp imprinted on her mind, her parents gifted her memories of Eritrea—sights, smells and tastes of a land in the horn of Africa that she had never known.
Gathered around their dinner table, she learned Tigre—an Eritrean language—from her father, as he held court on the nation’s politics and history over platters of spongy injera flatbread. Then there were stories from her mother—who liked to encourage her daughter to study—about early mornings preparing food for the family, before walking to school with cousins. And, of course, the nightly buna, a traditional coffee ceremony (complete with roasting, grinding and brewing beans) that brought Sabrin’s family together around a hallmark of Eritrean culture.
Eventually, Eritrea became almost like a character in her childhood—as real to Sabrin as her parents.
Along with learning about her cultural origins, she grew up on the harrowing journey that led her family away from their home in Eritrea. How cousins, aunts and uncles fled the civil war through the desert into neighbouring Sudan. How her own parents escaped decades of unrest in the 1990s, landing first in Germany before being placed in the refugee camp in the Netherlands. And how friends and family back home still live under one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships with forced labour, torture and no rule of law.
After a year in limbo at the refugee centre in the Netherlands, Sabrin’s family was finally granted refugee status and permitted to stay in the region. “We moved to a small town [where] we were one of four or five black families, but the people were so accepting,” she recalls. She quickly learned the language, started school and made friends, but it wasn’t until years later—after relocating to Staffordshire in the United Kingdom for her father’s work—that they found a burgeoning and diverse ethnic community to truly call their own. As the refugee crisis started, though, they also discovered prejudice and resentment.
Eager to fit in, Sabrin kept her family’s story to herself. Until the moment that WE Day brought Rita Ora into her life. “No one knew my story, none of my friends knew how strongly I felt or the things my parents went through,” she explains. But Rita’s confidence onstage gave her a new determination to change people’s perspective.
She wanted her classmates to understand that people are being forced to leave their homes and their countries; that refugees aren’t coming to the UK to steal jobs; that the only way to welcome people who are escaping death is with open arms. So, she prepared a presentation to share with her class. Impressed, other teachers in her school invited her to speak to their classes. Soon, she was addressing her school’s assemblies—full of classmates—and sharing her family’s story as a means of breaking stereotypes.
Motivated by the modest “hope of changing one person’s mind,” Sabrin ended up reaching thousands. This past March, at WE Day UK, she stepped into the spotlight—channeling the power of Rita Ora—and announced to a stadium full of people in London, “I’m here to share my refugee experience.”
Her parents—sitting among 12,000 young people from across the UK—beamed proudly as they heard their daughter do something that seemed impossible just two years earlier. She told her story and theirs, reshaping the perception of refugees to highlight their extraordinary bravery and making the world a more understanding place.