Supermodel, refugee, UNHCR Ambassador: Alek Wek details the traumas of fleeing from war

As European leaders meet Tuesday to discuss a united response to the flood of refugees from the Syrian Civil War, spoke with international supermodel Alek Wek, Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Wek, herself a refugee from South Sudan, describes the trauma of fleeing a war-torn home to seek asylum in a new land.

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In 1997, 19-year-old supermodel Alek Wek was a year into a fruitful career in fashion -- she was named "Model of the Year" by MTV, appeared in music videos by Tina Turner and Janet Jackson and was the first African model to ever appear on the cover of Elle magazine.

But when she went home after a day of fittings and photo shoots, dark memories of a former life would haunt her.

"I would wake up with nightmares if I heard like a sound of a movie I left running, and then I'd have to remind myself that it's okay now, it's safe," Wek, now 38, told AOL in an exclusive interview.

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Just four years before she was discovered by a modeling scout in a park in England on a Sunday afternoon, Wek, who was then 12, and her family fled their South Sudanese village, which was torn apart by a vicious civil war that killed two million citizens, including many of her friends and neighbors.

"It was very scary at the middle of the night. That's when the militias come, and some of our neighbors were disappearing, and all of a sudden you would smell something that was like dead animals, except it's actually human beings," she said. "It was just horrible. Your mother and father are trying to shield you from the horrific experience of 'Mom, why did our neighbors disappear?' This is somebody who is like your family."

Wek was raised in Wau, Sudan, in a "very basic" community with no electricity, but she fondly remembers the "richest" upbringing before the war turned it upside down.

"On the weekend, I would take my mother's cattle, bringing them back safe in the evening without them eating other peoples crops and getting chased down. It was just the sweetest thing, spotting planes, and imagining where those planes go," she recalled.

After being barricaded in their home for three days due to looting, killing and shelling, as a result of burgeoning conflict in the area, Wek found herself walking miles and miles in the bush with her family, with no destination in sight and no time to pack her belongings.

"I was really really scared, and I was really hurt not knowing when we'd go back to school, not knowing what happened to my friends. Living for two weeks out of fruits and vegetables from the bush ... Your mom is literally marching — and it was rainy season — to like nowhere. And I could just see my parents looking at each other like where do we go?" she said.

"That was really, really painful as a young person, and seeing my parents vulnerable -- that's when I realized that this is really serious."

Wek's story is especially relevant today amid a massive global migrant crisis garnering major mainstream attention, as millions of people flee Syria, resulting in 4 million Syrian refugees around the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency for which Wek serves as an ambassador.

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Supermodel, refugee, UNHCR Ambassador: Alek Wek details the traumas of fleeing from war
Migrant and refugee children lie on the ground during a demonstration to protest against Turkish police blocking the access to the road and the ticket office for the Turkey-Greece border towns on September 15, 2015 at Istanbul's Esenler Bus Terminal. Over half a million migrants have crossed the European Union's border so far this year, up from 280,000 in 2014, the bloc's Frontex border agency said on September 15, 2015 -- but warned some people may have been counted twice. AFP PHOTO / YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
ROSZKE, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 13: A young boy wraps up to keep warm as migrants wake up to a cold morning at the Hungarian border with Serbia on September 13, 2015 in Roszke, Hungary. A record number of 4,000 people crossed the Hungarian border with Serbia yesterday. Migrants are rushing to the border due to fears that the borders will soon close before the official closure of midnight on Monday, September 14th. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called 'Balkans route' has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The number of people leaving their homes in war torn countries such as Syria, marks the largest migration of people since World War II. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
SANLIURFA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 28: (TURKEY OUT) Kurdish refugee children from the Syrian town of Kobani look on near makeshift tents in a camp in the southeastern town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province October 28, 2014. Kurdish fighters, supported by US-led air strikes, have fended off the Islamic State militants offensive into the besieged Syrian border town of Kobani for the last 44 days but remain ill equipped and short on ammunition. (Photo by Kutluhan Cucel/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - JULY 02: Mother of Syrian child refugee 8-year-old Ahmet Kedru, with partial thickness burns on the face, Aisha Kedru weeps as her son demands support for an aesthetic surgery from Turkish doctors to return to the old days on July 02, 2015 in Aleppo's district Azaz. When Ahmet and his family members were inside of a tent that they take shelter in at Azaz district, the tent is burned out. Fire damaged both him and his mother. (Photo by Kerem Kocalar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Syrian refugees wait for transportation after crossing into Turkey from the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, near Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, on June 10, 2015. Thousands of people crossed from Syria into Turkey on June 10 to flee a battle pitting Islamist insurgents against Kurdish and opposition forces for the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
SANLIURFA, TURKEY - JUNE 06: A Turkish soldier carries a Syrian girl as she crosses into Turkey with her family from the borderline in Akcakale district of Sanliurfa on June 06, 2015. Hundreds of Syrians who fled from Syria after clashes between Syrian government forces and opponents in Rasulayn region of Al-Hasakah, have crossed into Turkey since Wednesday. (Photo by Halil Fidan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Syrian refugee woman sits as a child sleeps near her early in the morning on Taksim Square, Istanbul, on May 26, 2015. Britain's David Cameron and Russia's Vladimir Putin have agreed to re-start talks on finding a solution to the crisis in Syria, a statement from Cameron said on May 25. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian Kurdish boy peers as children take lessons on November 10, 2014 in a makeshift school tent in a refugee camp in the town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province. Turkey's maintained an 'open door' policy for all those fleeing Syria's civil war and there are now over 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in the country. More than 280,000 Syrian refugees are living in refugee camps, mostly in the southeast, according Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD). AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINI (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdish people watch the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, from the Turkish border in the southeastern village of Mursitpinar, Sanliurfa province, on October 18, 2014. Turkey is turning a deaf ear to insistent pressure to take a more pro-active stance in the fight against Islamic State (IS) jihadists, adding to existing strains with the West under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Western diplomats have repeatedly made clear they want to see the key NATO member play a key role in the coalition against the militants, who are battling for the Syrian town Kobane just a few kilometers from Turkey. AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A child cries as Syrian Kurdish people arrive after crossing the border between Syria and Turkey after several mortars hit both side in the southeastern town of Suruc, in the Sanliurfa province on September 29, 2014. Tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds flooded into Turkey fleeing an onslaught by the Islamic State (IS) group that prompted an appeal for international intervention. Some of the refugee now want to return to protect their homes and join the fight against IS militants. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the challenges of Wek's work is bringing awareness to the issue and sparking compassion among people who haven't experienced war and displacement.

"We think we have so many differences because we come from different cultures, but at the end, we have the fundamental similarities which is family is family, values are values and morals are morals. We shouldn't stigmatize refugees because it's just like how would you feel if someone segregated you? How would you feel if someone made you and your family vulnerable?" she said. "We can't understand exactly what it's like, but we can feel."

When Wek's family was trudging for miles through the bush in 1991, the Second Sudanese Civil War and the four million people it displaced weren't in the international forum. Wek recalled meeting hotel maids in New York City when she was working as a model who had no clue about the war. Now, as the European migrant crisis has been elevated in the public eye, Wek has more hope for families and individuals experiencing displacement.

PHOTOS: See Alek Wek's return to Southern Sudan with the UNHCR
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Supermodel, refugee, UNHCR Ambassador: Alek Wek details the traumas of fleeing from war

"The fact that the outcry in the public has really come out -- that shows the humanity," she said about the current crisis. "And that's one of the reasons I try to do as much work with the UNHCR because they are the front line. Not just when its like everyone is being aware of what's going on. They're there when it begins. They're there when the crisis is going on. They're there when it dies down."

The UNHCR leads and coordinates international action to assure the well-being of refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. For Wek, whose father was adamant about her going to school "just like the boys," that means getting to the "root of the problem" -- education.

"Like they say, teach a man to fish, so that they can be able to fend for themselves for life, long term ... The children in the refugee camp should be studying, people should have skills," she said. "My father said something to me once: 'You can lose almost everything, but you can never lose your education.' "

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Supermodel, refugee, UNHCR Ambassador: Alek Wek details the traumas of fleeing from war
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 08: Model Alek Wek is on hand for the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards presentations at Cipriani. (Photo by Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
357480 09: Fashion model Alek Wek poses September 17, 1999 during the Vivienne Westwood Fashion Show in New York City. British fashion designer Westwood presents her Spring/Summer 2000 'Red Label' collection in Bryant Park, followed by an after-party. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Liaison)
FRANCE - DECEMBER 10: Herb Ritts exhibition in Paris, France on December 10, 1999 - With Alek Wek. (Photo by Pool BENAINOUS/SCORCELLETTI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Model Alek Wek during the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2001 at Bryant Park in New York City. The show will air on ABC on Thursday, November 15. 11/13/01 Photo by Scott Gries/ImageDirect
402158 18: Model Alek Wek wears an outfit from designer Paco Rabanne March 11, 2002 during the Paris Fall-Winter 2002/2003 ready-to-wear collection show. (Photo by Charley Hel/Prestige/Getty Images)
Sudanese model Alek Wek presents a creation for Valentino 10 July 2002 at the autumn/winter 2002/2003 haute couture collections in Paris. AFP PHOTO PIERRE VERDY (Photo credit should read PIERRE VERDY/AFP/Getty Images)
Alek Wek during Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Fall 2003 Collections - Luca Luca - Front Row at Bryant Park in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by J. Vespa/WireImage)
Alek Wek wearing Elie Saab Haute Couture Autumn-Winter 2003/2004 Fashion Show (Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage)
Alek Wek during The Rolling Stones Celebrate the Launch of 'Four Flicks' in New York City at Capitale in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Gregory Pace/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK - JUNE 7: Model Alek Wek attends the 2004 CFDA Fashion Awards June 7, 2004 in New York City. (Photo by Peter Kramer/Getty Images)
FRANCE - JULY 06: Details: Valentino, Haute Couture Fashion Show Fall-Winter 2004-2005 in Paris, France On July 06, 2004-Model Alek Wek. (Photo by Pool BASSIGNAC/BENAINOUS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - DECEMBER 16: Model Alek Wek attends the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum's Young Collectors Council Artists Ball hosted by Dior on December 16, 2004 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. (Photo by Thos Robinson/Getty Images)
Alek Wek during Paris Fashion Week - Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2005 - Dior - Arrivals and Front Row at Polo de Paris in Paris, France. (Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage)
Alek Wek during 2005 Venice Film Festival - 'Casanova' Premiere - Red Carpet at Palazzo del Cinema in Venice Lido, Italy. (Photo by George Pimentel/WireImage)
Alek Wek wearing Baby Phat Fall 2006 during Olympus Fashion Week Fall 2006 - Baby Phat - Runway at The Tent, Bryant Park in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage)
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 07: Model Alek Wek attends the Versace store reopening party at the Versace Fifth Avenue Boutique during Olympus Fashion Week February 7, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Mat Szwajkos/Getty Images)
Alek Wek (Photo by Nick Harvey/WireImage)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 15: Model Alek Wek walks the runway at the Chado Ralph Rucci Spring 2007 Fashion show during Olympus Fashion Week in the Tent at Bryant Park September 15, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images for IMG)
Alek Wek wearing Ellen Tracy during Heart Truth Red Dress Fall 2007 (Photo by Thomas Concordia/WireImage)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 4: Model Alek Wek (L) and Designer Diane von Furstenberg attend The Wall Street Journal hosts the launch of Alek Wek's new book 'ALEK: From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel' at Socialista September 4, 2007 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - AUGUST 01: Model Alek Wek poses for a portrait in the Ritz Carlton Hotel on the day of Thisday's Africa Rising music and fashion festival on August 1, 2008 in Washington, DC. Jay-Z and John Legend are confirmed to headline tonight's Kennedy Center event, which campaigns for a different approach in Africa. Created by media mogul Nduka Obaigbena, the tour officially launched in Nigeria with two shows in July. Washington is the third stop on a four-city, three-nation tour. The event will culminate in a grand finale in London's Royal Albert Hall on October 14. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
LONDON - SEPTEMBER 15: Model Alek Wek walks down the catwalk during the Jasper Conran Spring/Summer 2009 collection at the Royal Academy during London Fashion week on September 15, 2008 in London, England (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON- AUGUST 1: Alek Wek models during the fashion catwalk at the THISDAY Africa Rising Music and Fashion Festival at the Kennedy Centre on August 1, 2008 in Washington. - (Photo by Samir Hussein/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 13: Model Alek Wek wearing This Day/Arise Magazine: African Fashion Collective 2009 during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at The Promenade in Bryant Park on February 13, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic)
LONDON - OCTOBER 14: Model Alek Wek walks down the catwalk during the Africa Rising Festival at the Royal Albert Hall on October 14, 2008 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
MILAN, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 23: Model Alek Wek walks the runway at the Miss Bikini Luxe Fashion Show during the Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2010 at Milano Fashion Center on September 23, 2009 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 28: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK TABLOID NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 48 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME. MANDATORY CREDIT PHOTO BY DAVE M. BENETT/GETTY IMAGES REQUIRED) Alek Wek attends the Red charity Diptyque candle launch on January 28, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Dave M. Benett/Getty Images)
Berlin Fashion Week: Alek Wek Läuft Bei Der Anja Gockel Modenschau (Photo by Franziska Krug/Getty Images)
BERLIN - JANUARY 21: Model Alek Wek walks the runway at the Anja Gockel Fashion Show during the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin Autumn/Winter 2010 at the Bebelplatz on January 21, 2010 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - JUNE 09: Alek Wek attends the 2010 Whitney Art Party at 82 Mercer on June 9, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Brian Ach/WireImage)
CENTURY CITY, CA - MAY 19: Model Alek Wek attends the 'Beauty Culture' exhibition opening reception at Annenberg Space For Photography on May 19, 2011 in Century City, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
MILAN, ITALY - FEBRUARY 27: Model Alek Wek attends the Roberto Cavalli Autumn/Winter 2012/2013 fashion show as part of Milan Womenswear Fashion Week on February 27, 2012 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 09: Model Alek Wek walks the runway at the Zac Posen Spring 2013 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center on September 9, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week)
SANTA MONICA, CA - AUGUST 19: Supermodel Alek Wek arrives at the 2012 Do Something Awards at Barker Hangar on August 19, 2012 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 12: Model Alek Wek attends the Estee Lauder 'Modern Muse' Fragrance Launch Party at the Guggenheim Museum on September 12, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Estee Lauder)
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 05: Alek Wek attends the Harpers Bazaar Women of the Year Awards at Claridge's Hotel on November 5, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)
PARIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 24: Alek Wek attends the 'Isabel Marant For H&M' Photocall at Tennis Club De Paris on October 24, 2013 in Paris, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 06: Model Alek Wek walks the runway at Desigual fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Fall 2014 at The Theatre at Lincoln Center on February 6, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images For Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week)
MUNICH, GERMANY - APRIL 09: Alek Wek attends the H&M store opening on April 9, 2014 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Gisela Schober/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 05: Alek Wek attends the Harper's Bazaar ICONS Celebration at The Plaza Hotel on September 5, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)
LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 18: Alek Wek attends the Sindika Dokolo Art Foundation dinner at Cafe Royal on October 18, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Getty Images for Cafe Royal)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 30: Model Alek Wek attends Keep A Child Alive's 11th annual Black Ball at Hammerstein Ballroom on October 30, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Child2014/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 16: Model Alek Wek poses backstage before the Zac Posen fashion show at Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal on February 16, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 16: Model Alek Wek attends the 2015 amfAR Inspiration Gala New York at Spring Studios on June 16, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 17: Model Alek Wek walks the runway at the Marc Jacobs Spring 2016 fashion show during New York Fashion Week at Ziegfeld Theater on September 17, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Marc Jacobs)

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