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Sara Nuru: "By traveling to Ethiopia, I understood what life is really about"

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Time Magazine: Ms. Nuru, when was the first time you were in Ethiopia, the home country of your parents?

Sara Nuru: When I was 14, I went there with my parents and siblings. Interestingly, I felt a lot stranger in Ethiopia than I would have expected. I was dressed differently, spoke a different language, did not understand the cultural codes. I was confronted with my identity for the first time on the trip: that I am actually totally German. I realized, ah, these are my roots, but I have no connection to them yet.

Time Magazine: Did that keep you busy at home?

Nuru: No. This first trip was not as formative as the second five years later, in September 2009. Shortly after I did Germany's Next Topmodel had won, the aid organization Menschen für Menschen asked me if I would like to act as an ambassador for them in Ethiopia. I wanted to take a look at the work on site before accepting the offer and had a time window of one week. Through this trip I was pulled out of the new, exciting world of TV appearances, shootings and beautiful hotels. It was not at all comparable to my first trip, where we looked at sights as a family and as tourists. This was about development aid. I suddenly sat in mud huts with families who have no running water and sleep on the floor. I was faced with real poverty. That was drastic.

Time Magazine: What did it feel like?

Nuru: I was ashamed of how ignorant I am. And I was faced with my privileges. That I was just lucky that my parents had the courage to flee. Otherwise my life could have looked the same. It was shocking at first. And then it became a kind of humility. I had lived my life so naturally and only then did I really understand that not everyone can live so freely and carefree.

Time Magazine: Did this change anything in your life?

Nuru: My attitude to my work. Through the trip I understood what life is really about. That my luck doesn't depend on whether I'm on a cover or walking across the red carpet. Back then I flew straight from Ethiopia to New York for Fashion Week, for the very first time. I should introduce myself, among other things, to a model agency. My measurements were taken there, and when the agent heard that my hip size was 94 centimeters, he was beside himself: what I can think of to stand in front of him with this hip size and that I should only come back when I am at a maximum of 90 centimeters am. Normally I would have taken this personally and maybe starved myself down for the next few weeks to match this picture. But at the moment I understood that it was not me that was the problem, but this system.

Time Magazine: Did this knowledge have any consequences?

Nuru: Not immediately. I continued to work, but I always had the feeling that it was so irrelevant. What is my reason for being, what is my contribution? And that finally tipped over in 2013 when I was supposed to try the most expensive sundae in the world for a television program. It cost 1,000 euros and was covered with gold leaf, and when I looked into the camera I felt so stupid. After that I took some time off to separate myself from everything. My partner at the time, my agency, my contracts. I no longer knew who I was, what I stood for, what I wanted.

Time Magazine: Today you import coffee from Ethiopia with your sister.

Nuru: A friend gave me a book during my time out: Start Something That Matters. It's about social business, about how you can do good by doing business. I got more and more involved with the topic, together with my sister. After much consideration, we decided to import coffee. We had no prior knowledge of how imports or coffee trade work, and we had to travel to the coffee region three or four times until we understood everything to some extent. We wanted to get our coffee from farmers' cooperatives, and we wanted everyone along the supply chain to be paid well and benefit from it, we too, that's the principle of social business. It was'nt easy. It took three years from the idea to the first pack.

Time Magazine: Did you find what you were looking for?

Nuru: Yes. As a model, I was used to other people coming up with the product and the strategy to market it, and I didn't do anything until the very end. I could never get involved, let alone make a decision. I have noticed that I like to take responsibility. I am not only the face, but also behind it. This is really nice.

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