Alek Wek: Exclusive Q&A With South Sudan’s Supermodel Refugee

As World Refugee Day approaches on June 20, Alek Wek tells TakePart why she looks to give back.

aids refugees Life Ball vienna alek wek

Alek Wek poses during the opening ceremony of the 20th Life Ball in Vienna, May 19, 2012. Life Ball is Europe’s largest annual AIDS charity event and takes place in Vienna’s City Hall. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

In 1991, caught between the chaos and crossfire of rebel and government forces in Sudan’s long-running civil war, 14-year-old Alek Wek’s family fled their home city of Wau in South Sudan. The family’s father, Athian Wek, contracted a hip infection during the long march toward safety and died before his wife and nine children reached sanctuary in England.

Although they could have killed us, they chose to help, and I’ve always been grateful to them.

Unlike the vast majority of the world’s refugees, Alek captivated the eye of a Model 1 scout in London in 1995. The 18-year-old appeared in Tina Turner’s “Golden Eye” video that same year, signed to Ford Models in 1996, and had become MTV’s Model of the Year and i-D’s Model of the Decade by 1997.

Wek’s profile as an international glamour icon has steadily risen in the intervening years, as has her drive to raise awareness, funds and commitments to action for the benefit of global refugees through UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees).

Alek took time out from her globe-spanning schedule to talk to TakePart about culture shock, the kindness of rebel killers, and how to honor the lives needlessly lost in South Sudan.

TakePart: What were the most challenging issues you had to overcome after leaving Sudan?

Alek Wek: First, I did not speak the language. So it was a real learning curve for me, not just adapting to a major cultural shift but also just learning the very basics of English, and building on that knowledge every single day. Second, living in London was nothing like my life in South Sudan. It really was like starting all over. It was a much bigger city and many more people, most of whom were strangers. And finally, I had to do this without my parents. My dad passed away due to a condition that if properly treated and with adequate medical resources, he would probably be with us today. My mom had to stay behind in South Sudan. I did not see her for another two years after I’d arrived in London. Keep in mind that I was just entering my teens, an important time for a mother and her daughter.

TakePart: Who are the people who helped you?

Alek Wek: You’ve heard the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child”? Well, it took a number of communities, including extended members of our families, to help us get to safety. First, we left our home in Wau on foot, with even our youngest sibling, Deng, who was four at the time, helping carry a little bundle. The main road out of town was jampacked with families, all soon to be refugees, headed into the bush. We even had rebels help at one point in our journey. They carried my father and sister across muddy parts of the river where it was nearly impossible to walk.

Although they could have killed us, they chose to help, and I’ve always been grateful to them.

TakePart: What can you say to young people who struggle with feelings of being outsiders or who lack security?

Alek Wek: I know it’s tough, and you may want to even give up. I had times when I felt that way. But as much as there are people who make you feel less-than or unloved, there are many more people who will lend an open hand. Do not allow people who do not want to see you happy stop your forward progress. That’s how I began to think about it. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like, in the midst of so much violence and bloodshed, if my family and I had not taken the opportunity to leave our country.

TakePart: What are your hopes for South Sudan? 

Alek Wek: My hopes for South Sudan are for the people to have a real chance to rebuild their lives and develop businesses that will support the country and help the economy thrive. So many people lost loved ones in the war that building the best South Sudan possible will honor those who so needlessly lost their lives.

TakePart: What can people around the world do to help South Sudan?

Alek Wek: There is so much work to be done, and South Sudan could use all the help possible. Working with organizations such as UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) is an important first step. For instance, UNHCR is providing life-saving emergency shelter and assistance to refugees fleeing into South Sudan from Sudan. Can you imagine risking your life just to get to safety and not having any resources to help you? It is because of UNHCR that those who’ve fled don’t have to be alone in this journey.

TakePart: Tell us about working with UNHCR, why is this important to you?

Alek Wek: With the hundreds of thousands of returning South Sudanese, UNHCR is building homes, schools, developing programs for youth, helping with agriculture and livelihood programs and much more.  If people give to UNHCR at www.unrefugees.org, they’ll be supporting these life-changing programs.

That’s why it is such an honor to return to my homeland, in partnership with UNHCR, this summer around the first anniversary of South Sudan’s independence. I want to be involved, and this is a wonderful way among many to give back to the people of South Sudan.

Is there a place in your past that you’d like to go back and help? Tell us about it in COMMENTS.

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