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Meet Maija, Nigerian-Finnish Model Thriving With Down syndrome

Maija Mattila, a 20-year-old model born with Down’s syndrome, is a rising star in the modelling industry.

Down syndrome is a lifelong genetic disorder in which a person is born with distinct physical features and some degree of cognitive disability.

It is typically associated with physical growth delays, characteristic facial features and mild to moderate intellectual disability.

Maija, born to a Finnish mother and Nigerian father, told BBC Africa that she was inspired to go into modelling after watching Polina Hiekkala on Finland’s Next Top Model in 2012.

“I started practising my walk at home, in front of the mirror,” Maija said.

Anna-Erika Mattila, her mother, admits that she was reluctant to support her daughter’s dream at the onset, saying: “I wanted her to have more realistic ambitions and then there’s Down’s syndrome on top of that.”

Maija said she was bullied at school because of her skin colour but she was not deterred from her dreams.

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When Maija turned 18, a family friend gave her a gift voucher to go for a professional photo shoot at the Finnish Broadcasting Company.

The shoot went viral after it was broadcasted online.

“My biggest campaign so far has been for Kalevala Koru,” Maija said. “I loved doing the catwalk at African Fashion Festival Helsinki.”

Like every model, she has had to make sacrifices; Maija lost 15kg and had to give up sweets, ice cream and chocolate.

“The hardest thing about modelling has been losing weight,” she said.

Maija has never been to Nigeria and her father is not in her life.

Nonetheless, she is interested in everything about the country, especially the songs of Yemi Alade, an afropop star.

“I want to go [to Nigeria], to just holiday and bathe in the sun. I want to be an example to others and encourage everybody to pursue their dreams and be proud of their skin colour,” Maija said.

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