Alek Wek: An emotional journey home with UNHCR

Alek Wek, the long limbed South Sudanese supermodel, is beguiling in person. Her intoxicating accent and mega-watt smile immediately intrigue but this woman is far more than a pretty face.

This past July, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) accompanied the infamous model, a refugee herself, to South Sudan for the one-year anniversary of the country’s independence.  “I couldn’t believe it really happened.  After almost 50 years my country is free.  It was truly an inspiration to see the pride of the South Sudanese people,” Wek said.

After three flights, and two days of travel, Wek found herself in her native country for the first time since the 2011 referendum where over 98% of the country voted for independence from the North.  Wek said she traveled to South Sudan in 2005 after the peace agreement was signed with the North; but even then she didn’t believe independence would ever come.

In July the day did come, and she relished the celebration. “I was impressed with President Salva Kiir’s speech.  He urged the people to contribute to building their country and about the need for education development — specifically for girls,” She said.

Wek fled her native village of Wau when she was 10, it was 1985, and the second civil war was raging around her.   Like many refugee families, Wek and her eight siblings were split up when they fled the country. Because of a progressing hip injury her father and sister were the first to leave for Khartoum in the North.

A few months later, on her own, Wek took the courageous journey herself. Approximately two million people were killed during the two civil wars that ravaged the South and it is estimated that four million people were either internally displaced or refugees.

“Khartoum was hot and dusty and we weren’t treated well,” she said.  Wek’s father was the minister of education in Wau and her mother ran a tight household.  They always encouraged her, and her sisters, to focus on their education – not a common practice in Sudan.  After her father died, Wek and her sister sought asylum in London.  Her mother was unable to make the journey for two years.  “You can imagine how hard it was, I was a teenager, a time when a girl really needs her mother.” She didn’t speak any English when she arrived in London.

While in college Wek was at a fair when a modeling scout approached her and asked if she had considered modeling.  “Where I come from there aren’t any models, and I thought — is this woman daft,” Wek said.  She went on to become the first African model on the cover of Elle and graced the catwalk in some of the most exclusive designer frocks in the industry.  Wek said fashion gave her a voice and that is exactly what she’s been using since her trip home over the summer.

While the pride and jubilee of the newest country in the world is still fresh for the people of South Sudan, they are facing immense challenges.  Since the peace agreement, hundreds of thousands of Southerners have returned home, swelling the country’s population by 30%.  Threatening to upend, the fragile system is fighting in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, which has resulted in about 200,000 Sudanese refugees fleeing into the South.

The competing challenges have South Sudan teetering on a precipice.  Since the fighting broke out in June 2011, UNHCR has been desperately working to stave off the humanitarian crisis that, due to heavy rains and malnutrition, is on the brink of a massive emergency.

UNHCR field teams monitoring the health situation of refugees in Maban County, where Alek visited, reported 15% of the children under the age of five are suffering from acute malnutrition, well above emergency levels for a humanitarian situation. The medical issues coupled with torrential rains are making the situation dangerous.

“I couldn’t believe it’s been 20 years and still people are being displaced by violence,” Wek said. The refugee community is combating malaria, diarrhea and severe malnutrition.  Because South Sudan was plagued by decades of violence, there is little internal capacity, forcing aid groups to bring doctors and technical professionals from outside — making the crisis even more expensive. Traumatized by conflict and weak from their dangerous journeys, refugees are in desperate need of the lifesaving care UNHCR helps to provide.

However, all is not bleak, Alek also traveled to her hometown, Wau, where she was greeted by dozens of singing and dancing children.  She shared her story with them and reminded them that like her, with access to education, they can achieve anything they put their mind to.  In Wau she visited Alek Chok, a UNHCR returnee village, where 500 homes, a health clinic, primary school and police station have been built.  Alek talked with returnees who were cultivating squash and said they were thrilled to be restarting their lives.  She said people are happy to be safe but are struggling to find jobs and higher education for their children.

“Education is really the key.  South Sudanese people don’t want handouts, they just need access to resources,” Wek said.  Wek and UNHCR are working on next steps and hope that through their efforts they will be able to raise funds for both the emergency and a school. UNHCR is the lead agency on the frontlines of three raging emergencies. With the situations in Syria, Sudan/S.Sudan and Mali continuing to worsen, the organization is facing challenges in staffing and funding.  800,000 people have been displaced, and with rains and security issues the situations are becoming more complex by the day.  “With more help, we can save and assist tens of thousands of people in critical situations,” said Charity Tooze, a spokesperson for UNHCR and brainchild of the Wek journey home.  Contributions by major donors, foundations and individuals are essential for UNHCR to carry out its lifesaving work.

“I believe we have a social responsibility to help people in need. South Sudan and UNHCR can’t do this by themselves. They need the help of the international community.  Please help me help South Sudan and the emergencies by giving to UNHCR,” Wek said.

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