While you may just be discovering her and her work thanks to Netflix’s Made in Mexico, Hanna Jaff has been quietly becoming a powerhouse humanitarian and philanthropist, working hard to make a difference in the lives of immigrants, refugees, and other under-served, marginalized people.
Jaff was born and raised in San Diego, CA to a Mexican-Catholic mother and a Kurdish-Muslim father. Growing up embracing her dual nationalities, she was often a victim of discrimination, especially living in a post-9/11 world.
“It has always been a constant battle of obstacles that I’ve been through because of who I am or what I believe in or what I represent.”
Her background is a big part of the reason why she decided to become a humanitarian and philanthropist. Although she started out working for other NGOs, Jaff ultimately wanted to do something that was a little bit closer to her background.
“It was always like I had to ask my superior if I could help such and such immigrant,” she said. “And it was always like, ‘God, why can’t I just do what I want and help the people in this cause and this situation?’”
She started the Jaff Foundation in June 2013. Despite her work experience and schooling, including a master’s degree from Harvard University, Jaff said starting her own NGO was a challenge.
“In the beginning, obviously, it was very hard because when you ask people for help, the first thing they’ll ask you is what’s your last name, what company you’re coming from, what other NGOs you’ve worked with, [etc]. When you have none of the above, people will shut the door on you.”
Over the last five years, the Jaff Foundation has grown exponentially, having helped 120,000 immigrants, refugees, and marginalized groups thanks to the help of 7,000 active volunteers.
One of the main components of her NGO is the three self-taught English language learning books that Jaff wrote herself.
“… I want to give them a book to take with them on their journey or while they’re in the camps waiting because that’s something that actually makes a difference. I first started buying books from other people, Rosetta Stone or other companies. And I was like, ‘You know, I’m tired of paying for other people’s work. I’m just going to write it myself.’ I did that and then it was translated to Kurdish as well and then to native Purépecha, which is a Mexican native language.”
In addition to donating the English learning books, the Jaff Foundation campaigns against “discrimination on political views, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, skin color, gender, disabilities, socioeconomic status, and cultural differences.”
Though Jaff has received a lot of accolades and awards for all of her activism, she said that none of those really matter to her at the end of the day.
“The biggest accomplishment is how many people have a better life because you exist. If you manage to change at least one person’s life, then you had a successful life. For me, it’s the biggest award when I received an email or a letter from someone that said, ‘you’ve improved my life because I got your book, or I heard you speak, or I saw your Ted Talk Online.’”
While Jaff hasn’t given up her activism, she can also now add “reality star” to her resume. She has a starring role on Made in Mexico, Netflix’s reality series that focuses on the “opulent lifestyles and famous families of Mexico City’s socialites and the expats vying for a spot in their exclusive social order.”
Part of the reason why Jaff wanted to be a part of this show is because of the experience she’s had defending Mexico throughout her life. Having lived all over the world, she says Mexico tends to get a negative stereotype, due in large part to all of the cartel shows set in Mexico that seem to be rising in popularity.
“I thought I could be a part of something that could help that reputation and [as a result of the show] people will want to visit Mexico, meet a Mexican and you know, maybe even be a Mexican [laughs].”
Despite the show focusing on a group of Mexicans who might seem to run in the same circles, Jaff said that a majority of the cast didn’t know each other prior to filming.
“One of the cast members knew all of us and I guess [Netflix] approached him first and then he introduced the rest of the cast.”
Made in Mexico was the subject of controversy before the show even dropped on Netflix. After the trailer dropped in early September, the show received a lot of backlash for focusing on the lives of light-skinned wealthy socialites when most people in Mexico have darker skin and about half the population lives in poverty.
“I think there’s always going to be positive and negative comments about anything,” she said about the backlash the show received. “I don’t think that anyone should be angry by [the show]. I know there was some backlash on skin color and that’s something that bothers me because that was a generalization about Mexicans and that’s not true. If you go to the north, a lot of people are blonde and blue-eyed. My grandmother was from the south and she was blonde. I work with the less fortunate and I go to small towns and cities all the time, small cities in Mexico, and people are much lighter than me. That’s sort of the stereotype. People think Mexicans are all brown and that’s not the case at all… I think that people will always have negative and positive opinions and I just hope that people can see the positive side and just see that we have issues under our own circumstances just like anyone else in the world.”
But regardless of the criticism, Jaff hopes people give the show a chance and allow themselves to be open to seeing a different side of Mexico.
“I hope that people can get a good impression and want to visit Mexico after seeing the show. And just have a different point of view, not just the negative views that we already have.”