10 Questions for Alek Wek
6 months ago
Supermodel discusses her South Sudan homeland, and how she defines beauty
In 1991, when Alek Wek was just a teen, she was forced to flee Sudan to escape the country’s civil war. This summer, the supermodel returned to South Sudan with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to visit refugee camps and to celebrate the nation’s first year of independence. Wek spoke with Loop 21 about the emotional trip, her hopes for South Sudan, and how growing up there helped shape her definition of beauty.
Loop 21: What made you return home to Sudan?
Alek Wek: For me, it wasn’t a question of whether I should or shouldn’t go. Having been born in Wau and growing up there, my fondest memories are from being there at age 6, 7, 8. When you leave a place, you get to appreciate where you come from, and after we finally sought refuge in London, it was always in the back of my mind. I just always wanted to be able to go back. This is where my roots are. Once I got into fashion, and being blessed with a voice, I felt it was very important to shed light on important issues by going into the field with UNHCR.
Loop 21: What was it like going back?
A.W.: It just brought back memories all over, not just horrible memories of the war, but I saw the fondest memories. I saw myself in the kids’ eyes, and how much can be done now with this town. It was all very hopeful, and it made me want to get involved even more and follow through with sitting down with UNHCR to see how we can provide an education and a future for these children.
Loop 21: What was life like growing up in Wau?
A.W.: For me, the thing about growing up in Wau was the small things. It’s the smallest things, the things we don’t really think about it until we see how others live, and then you realize how amazing it is. Like going to milk the cow. And we didn’t go to supermarket, we would go to the market, where everything was fresh—vegetables, fish caught that day. Yes, these sound like chores, but they are who I was, who I am. It wasn’t like something I hated, it was something I celebrated in a way.
Loop 21: What was it like getting out of Sudan as a child? How did you manage, and how did you end up in the U.K.?
A.W.: When I left Wau for Khartoum, there were no [commercial] flights. It was only the fighting planes that were operating. We would see the plane or hear it, and we would pack up and start walking to the plane in the hopes of getting on. To get out of Wau, there was a lot of bribing going on.
On this day, there were a lot of soldiers around, keeping their eye on everyone. I said to my mother, "Mom, we need to start dispersing. It would help more if were not all together. I will leave, then somebody else will leave.” I saw my neighbor, and asked my mother, “Do you trust him?” She said, "Yes." So, I go up to him, he is nervous, but I ask him to say that I am his kid, so that I could go with him on the plane. My mom looks at him and I see the sadness in her eyes. I was sad too, but I had to leave.
When I was leaving, my mom was so much more emotional than I was. I have always loved my family, but I always knew that even if we are apart we really care about each other and will be together again.
Loop 21: Tell us a little about your family.
A.W.: In the Wek family, there are nine of us, and my mother managed us all! I am forever so grateful my mother taught five of us girls, and four boys what makes you beautiful, and she lived that and I try to do anything as close as possible to the way she has done things, because she is so beautiful, inside and out.