Michaela DePrince for War Child

Michaela DePrince was born during Sierra Leone's bloody civil war. After losing both her parents, growing up in an orphanage and then adopted, Michaela eventually found the courage to pursue her dream: becoming a world-renowned ballerina. Today, as War Child ambassador, the Dutch National Ballet soloist advocates for children in conflict.
Michaela DePrince ambassador of War Child

Michaela: "I believe mental health is just as important as physical wellbeing. That is why children affected by war and armed conflict need to have access to effective psychosocial support."

Photo: Isayah Yeshua Noya

Overcoming past demons

Since february 2016 Michaela DePrince is our ambassador. She knows first-hand what it is like to grow up amidst armed conflict, and what it takes to overcome, as she calls it, 'the demons of your past'. During her first years of life, some 50,000 men, women and children lost their lives. Her parents were among the dead and three-year-old Michaela, born as Mabinty Bangura, found herself in an orphanage. Eventually Michaela was, together with her friend also named Mabinty (now known as Mia), adopted by the American couple DePrince.

"They called me the devil's child"

Michaela: "I was born with vitiligo, a skin condition which causes patches of my skin to lose its pigment and turn white. Because of this, I was exposed to ridicule and harassment in the orphanage. They called me the devil’s child." She continues: "What I’ve learnt along the way is that it takes a great deal more than a safe place to sleep, food on the table or fame and fortune to really overcome the past. Dare to dream? Yes. But first we have to really look inwards."

She explains why she became an ambassador for War Child. "I strongly believe in two things: psychosocial support and education. It’s as simple and earth shattering as that. I believe mental health is just as important as physical wellbeing. That is why children affected by war and armed conflict need to have access to effective psychosocial support."

“I strongly believe in two things: psychosocial support and education. It’s as simple and as earth shattering as that. That’s why I became an ambassador for War Child."
Michaela DePrince, War Child ambassador
Michaela DePrince balletdanseres ambassadeur voor War Child

"Turn your past, your scars into your strength. That’s what I always try to do.” And Michaela believes this outlook fits perfectly with War Child’s mission.

Photo: Michaela DePrince

Michaela DePrince ambassadeur voor War Child - in Libanon

“War Child provides children with the support I could only have wished for as a child - the opportunity to play, to sing and express yourself.”

Photo: Isayah Yeshua Noya

On the path to renowned ballerina

One morning in the orphanage, the dusty wind blew a yellowed magazine down the street onto the gate. On the cover was a picture of a beautiful ballerina en pointe. Michaela: "I didn’t know what she was doing when I first saw her but it didn’t really matter much to me. Of course, I noticed her pink tutu. But what planted the seed of hope - that I hadn’t felt in a long time - was that she looked so happy and content. All I knew right away was that I had to be this person.”

Turning scars into strengths

Today, Michaela, Dutch National Ballet soloist, has achieved all that and more. “My American adoptive parents were ultimately my salvation,” she says. “I spent the next years of my childhood in the United States where ballet became my vocation. My dream came true.” Together with her adoptive mother Elaine DePrince, she wrote 'Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina' about her life story, which is soon to be a major motion picture directed by Madonna. Michaela’s outlook is simple: “Turn your past, your scars into your strength. That’s what I always try to do.”

“I aspire to be a role model for children in conflict-affected areas. Despite having experienced terrible things, I believe you can still pursue your dreams."
Michaela DePrince

Michaela's visits to Uganda and Lebanon

In the summer of 2019, Michaela visited Uganda and Lebanon to see our work first-hand. It was time for her to meet children who are growing up just like she did. “Honestly, I first doubted if I really wanted to go”, Michaela recalls. “I knew it would bring back bad memories of my own childhood in Sierra Leone. I was afraid of new nightmares haunting me again.”

But fortunately, Michaela got on the plane. “I decided I wanted to see War Child’s work with my own eyes,” she says. “The work that makes a difference in the lives of children. That was important to me.” In Uganda, Michaela travelled north to the Bidi Bidi settlement - the largest refugee camp in the world. Here, she met many children participating in War Child's programmes. Michaela: "We organized a workshop that day where I explained to a group of children what ballet is. We had so much fun!”

Michaela DePrince ambassador of War Child

“I decided I wanted to see War Child’s work with my own eyes. The work that makes a difference in the lives of children. That was important to me.”

Photo: Jeppe Schilder

Restoring hope and confidence

In both Uganda and Lebanon, Michaela participated in our daily activities - a combination of games, sports, education and dancing all focused on children’s mental health and wellbeing. “I felt like a child again,” she says. “I saw that children were opening up and expressing themselves through easy games and personal interaction. They connected with each other - and ultimately with themselves. For me, this shows what resilience means in practice, and how to be like a ‘regular child’, despite the things they have gone through. It all restores hope and confidence.”

“I was particularly fascinated by the e-learning programme Can’t Wait to Learn, which I saw in action within the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. Many children can’t attend regular schools but this teaches them to read, write and count via tablets, amongst other things. The children were so eager to learn."

Michaela DePrince ambassadeur voor War Child - in Libanon

Michaela visited the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, where she saw in action our e-learning programme Can’t Wait to Learn.

Photo: Isayah Yeshua Noya

Michaela DePrince ambassadeur voor War Child - in Libanon

"I saw that children were opening up and expressing themselves through easy games and personal interaction. War Child restores hope and confidence.”

Photo: Isayah Yeshua Noya

The opportunity to play, sing and express yourself

Michaela believes this outlook fits perfectly with War Child’s mission. “Through specialised psychosocial remedies, War Child provides children with the support I could only have wished for as a child - the opportunity to play, to sing and express yourself.” Following her recent appearance at the International Conference on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Crisis Situations in Amsterdam - Michaela is determined to shed light on this topic.

'Dare to Dream' by Michaela DePrince

“It’s never enough for me,” she says. “That’s why I organised 'Dare to Dream', a special event to support children living with war in daring to dream again. The 4 November event in Amsterdam’s AFAS Live was led with music, dance and Michaela’s inspiring story. It included artists like Sam Smith and Brandi Carlile and was attended by Michaela’s international network in fashion, sports, dance and business.

With this event Michaela aimed to inspire young people to understand that the circumstances you were born into do not define you. Michaela: "At this moment, some 420 million children are growing up in an environment of armed conflict. My dream is that I will one day live to see a huge decrease in this number.”