For the first time in seven years, supermodel Alek Wek returned to her homeland of South Sudan, visiting a refugee camp on the one-year anniversary of the country’s independence. Wek fled the country in 1991, when civil war forced her family out of their hometown of Wau. The family was forced to scavenge to survive, and navigate the harsh conditions in the war torn region. After spending months moving from village to village as refugees, Wek, her mother and sister managed to escape to London when she was just 14. Her father passed away during their time seeking asylum.
A modeling scout for Models 1 discovered Wek in a Crystal Palace outdoor marketplace in 1995, which began her whirlwind career. Just two years later, she became the first black woman to grace the cover of Elle magazine. Wek chronicled her improbable story in a book, Alek: From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel.
Two decades after making London her home, Wek returned to Sudan to visit the Yusuf Batil refugee camp, home to some 35,000 displaced residents.
“It choked me up because I remembered walking through the bush…and eating whatever we found, and my mom knowing what greens were poisonous and which ones were not,” Wek told the Guardian. Currently the 35-year-old model serves as part of the US committee for refugees’ advisory council. Returning to see the refugee’s in the Upper Nile state, Wek remembered her own hardships during childhood.
Having witnessed it first-hand, and at a very young age, even if I put it at the back of my mind, it is still there,” she said. “‘I’ve heard stories like, ‘I’m going to die anyway, I might as well die, why should I even try?’ That really resonated, not knowing what tomorrow is.”
No doubt, Wek’s own story has served as an inspiration to others hoping to survive the ongoing strife in Sudan.