Supermodel Alek Wek Journeys To South Sudan To Raise Awareness of Refugees’ Plight

Supermodel, former refugee and UNHCR Refugee Advocate, Alek Wek

Supermodel, former refugee and UNHCR Refugee Advocate, Alek Wek at a way station with UNHCR in Juba, South Sudan dancing with children. UNHCR/B.Sokol/July 10, 2012

Supermodel Alek Wek has come far, her journey from her native Sudan to the realm of high fashion rendering her a star. “I think the most important thing especially is that fashion should celebrate women,” the world-renowned beauty said of her profession walking runways and gracing magazine covers.  Yet, the fairy tale ending to Wek’s arduous trek from Africa to London has not dulled her memories of the war that uprooted her family. Wek spoke to theGrio after journeying back to her region of birth to help those still suffering from that conflict’s aftermath.Wek fled Sudan as a teen in 1991, one of the estimated four million southern Sudanese who were displaced when a civil war erupted in 1983. A 2005 peace accord ended the hostilities, and has since spurred hundreds of thousands to return, lovingly reclaiming lands decades of war had made uninhabitable.

“I couldn’t be there when the independence took place, but I remember people were kissing the ground. It gave me goose bumps,” Wek told theGrio of this momentous event. “I never thought that day would come. The independence was quite emotional for the people of the south. They’ve been through so much bloodshed.”

Now free from the specter of war, displaced citizens are happily returning to the newly christened Republic of South Sudan, which split off from the nation now called Sudan in the north as decreed by the agreement.

Alarmingly, these returning South Sudanese — called “returnees” — are facing fresh perils. Streaming over the boarders by the thousands every day from surrounding regions, returnees are cramming into overflowing refugee camps that are challenging the country’s nascent infrastructure.

“There are currently 180,000 refugees in South Sudan on the new border between the north and south,” Charity Tooze, Senior Communications Officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) explained to theGrio about these circumstances. “This is in addition to the 330,000 refugees who have returned since the treaty dividing the nations was signed in 2005.”

Wek journeyed back to South Sudan in July of 2012 to draw attention to their plight. Her third trip back to her native land since attaining international acclaim, and her first since the treaty, Wek’s latest journey home was an effort at nation-building and national healing. “It was very touching for me when I went back,” she said. “Of course, there are so many challenges.”

Her involvement as a UNHCR Refugee Advocate is bringing vital attention to the circumstances under which the returnees and refugees are living. Cramped in tents. Functioning without running water. Facing malnutrition, disease, and the persistent threat of death as a result.

These shadows could have degraded the gratitude Wek saw everywhere on the faces of those happy to see South Sudan’s independent nationhood. Instead of despair, she warmly related that the South Sudanese are energized to industriously build their future together, noting “the perseverance and the hope… to take this nation to the next level.”

Wek met with refugees such as Rhoda, a mother who bore her children during the war in an area that is mainly desert. “She was so afraid, because the kids grew up in the north,” Wek explained, as Rhoda was concerned that they would never learn to love the south’s lush landscape.

But they were delighted at seeing South Sudan for the first time. “‘Oh, this [is] so beautiful!’ They were so surprised,” Wek said of the moving anecdote. “I mean, they were really, really touch[ed] and they started to adapt. It was a really beautiful moment.”

Rhoda told the supermodel, “‘As long as we have our country, we have our land, we are forever grateful for any little bit that we have; we just want to be able to cultivate it, to be able to sustain ourselves,’” Wek said. “And that’s it.”

She credits UNHCR with helping to inspire this positive spirit. “I appreciate and have a tremendous amount of respect for organizations that I align myself with such as UNHCR[.] They don’t just go there and just save lives,” the catwalker intoned. “They’re not just like, ‘We’ll come and we’ll take over.’ They actually work along side with the community. They actually encourage the community to empower themselves… which is the way to do it. The community doesn’t want any handouts; they want to be self-sustained.”

The refugee advocate simultaneously acknowledged that South Sudan, at only one year old, has many hurdles to surmount before achieving self-sufficiency.

“It’s just one year,” Wek said of South Sudan’s growing pains. “You have to give a little bit of a pat on the back regarding just how much it’s grown; but I think we need a lot of infrastructure to build a nation. You need all the other areas; you need the doctors, you need the lawyers, you need the teachers, you need the scientists; you need all the other aspects. That’s why I gave an example of people coming back to the country. I try and play, in my small way, a role to help rebuild the community.”

Tooze added that the country desperately needs emergency funds to help sustain and ameliorate the refugees’ situation, but Wek hopes to encourage the world to see her country as she does: wealthy with opportunities that investors will properly assess.

“It’s so rich, you know, anything can grow in the south,” Wek said proudly of the region of her birth. “It’s rich in natural resources.”

“If we can be able to think, ‘we’re not just giving, but actually we’re getting, investing,’” Wek said of South Sudan’s positive potential, “it’s an investment where you actually gain, because it’s a meaningful investment; if I buy something and I know even 50 percent is going to go towards the cause of helping another fellow human being, I will be more than happy to pay.”

Investment in human capital is what Wek wants for her countrymen and women who she observed on her journey home doing everything they could to spur growth. Leaders are investing in education. Foriegn-educated South Sudanese are returning to start businesses. Even the returnees are plowing the strips of land around their tents to grow their own food, starting towards the path of material independence that South Sudan’s political emancipation has traced.

However, to reach that path, those struggling in the camps need immediate assistance to lift them out of squalor. ”The UNHCR has made an emergency appeal to the nations and the large corporate donors of the world of $220,000,000 to support the reintegration of these refugees into the new country,” Tooze said. “So far, only 20 percent of this goal has been met, largely from donations from the U.S. government.”

This means that more donor countries and corporations must contribute soon, to prevent the tide of suffering occurring in the camps from getting worse. Wek is doing everything she can to start these monies flowing to those in South Sudan who need it most.

But don’t think of it as charity work in her case.

“It’s not giving back,” Wek said. “This is inspiring.”

article by Alexis Garrett Stodghill via

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