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.

UN Video Shows Refugees and Migrants at Croatian Border
UN Video Shows Refugees and Migrants at Croatian Border

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.

See Syrian refugees entering Europe:

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

"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.' "

See Alek Wek through the years:

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Originally published