Supermodel Alek Wek’s Bittersweet Return Home—to a Free South Sudan

She fled her homeland as a child amid civil war. Recently she returned as a globe-trotting model to an independent nation—South Sudan, the newest country in the world. But the scars of war remain.

08.28.12 9:45 PM ET

When I was 10 years old, I fled my homeland amid the bomb blasts of civil war in Sudan. I was the seventh of nine siblings, and my family had been hiding in the bush for months, trying to stay alive as the war raged around us. It felt like we were always on the run. I remember at one point we had to cross the Nile River during the rainy season, and my father had to be carried because a hip injury had flared up from all the running.

Last month, I went back—to a free country. South Sudan, the newest country in the world.

I never thought I would see a free South Sudan. I had traveled there a few years ago, in 2005, after a peace agreement had been signed with the North, but even then, people were anxious. Two civil wars had ravaged the country for more than four decades; it was hard to believe independence would come. And here I was now, on July 9, celebrating the one-year anniversary of freedom and listening to the country’s first president, Salva Kiir, rally the people. I was home.

Leaving southern Sudan as a child was terrifying. It was 1985, and my family and I were trying to escape to Khartoum, the capital in the North, to safety. Transport planes would arrive every few days to carry people away from danger. When my siblings and I would see the planes cresting the mountains, we would line up, hoping they would let us board. We were turned away at least five times. There were too many of us; we knew we had to split up. So my father and one of my sisters went first because of his hip; I went later, leaving my mother behind, breaking my heart.

I stayed in Khartoum for four years. An infection in my father’s hip eventually took his life. After that, I made my way to London with one of my sisters. I didn’t speak a word of English. And I was a teenager, a time when a girl really needs her mother. I’ll tell you, teenagers can be kind of nasty. It was hard. But the most shocking thing of all was that London was so bloody cold.

Two years later, my mother was finally able to join me.

I was “discovered” at an outdoor fair in London. A modeling scout approached me, asking if I had ever considered being a model. I remember thinking, “What is she—daft?” But she was serious. When I told my mother, she said, “What is this modeling business?” I was studying art history and design at a university by then, and she wanted me to continue my education. My father had been the minister of education in my hometown of Wau; when I was a kid, my parents were always stressing the importance of education. So I pursued a modeling career while continuing to go to school.

My mother was right. It’s my education that has allowed me to negotiate deals for myself and continue my modeling career for two decades, launching a handbag line and writing a memoir along the way. I remember in the beginning, my fellow models remarking that I was “different.” I was like, “I’m not weird, you’re weird.” My experience as a refugee had made me strong; I could survive anything, even the world of fashion.

Alek Wek with UNHCR in Juba, South Sudan on Tuesday, 10 July, 2012.

Brian Sokol / UNHCR

Wek with a child in Juba, South Sudan.

Last month, when I visited my homeland, I rejoiced in its freedom, but I was reminded of my brutal youth. South Sudan’s development has been thwarted by decades of violence. The country is terribly lacking in infrastructure, doctors, schools. Today only 15 percent of the population is educated. I was told that a young South Sudanese girl is three times more likely to die in childbirth than to make it to the eighth grade.

I saw myself in the eyes of the children who put on a performance for me, illustrating how they had felt like second-class citizens, their families displaced, before their homeland had become free. I met an elderly woman who told me she had carried children on her shoulders to safety from a flood, the water up to her thighs. The rainy season makes life that much harder. Trucks can’t get through with aid, planes can’t land on flooded runways, and so food is dropped from the air.

Brian Sokol / UNHCR

Wek in Juba, South Sudan.

I traveled on this journey with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or the UNHCR, a group I work with. The agency is helping thousands of people who have returned from exile and are trying to start their lives anew in South Sudan. Continued fighting on the border between the North and South is sending even more people pouring into the South for refuge. The young nation is full of hope, but it is nearly impossible to keep up with the need.

The world’s newest country needs the attention of the world. The people of South Sudan are rich like the soil, but they need the tools to grow.

As told to Charity Tooze, a senior spokeswoman for the UNHCR.