Sixty million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes because of war, persecution and terrible human rights violations. This number is astonishing, isn’t it? As members of a global society with access to endless streams of media, it is easy to hear numbers and figures and to get caught up in the politics of it all. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that each number represents a living, breathing, feeling human soul. That’s just it, though. We are talking about people. Innocent people. Just like you. Just like me. I was once one of these numbers, one of the nameless, faceless statistics that was forced to flee. Can you imagine what that’s like, what it’s like to be forced to flee your home, to have your village decimated, to wholly lose life as you know it? Please do try.
We have a global displacement crisis on our hands, and as a global community we must address it. We must engage. We must empathize. We must figure out what we can do as individuals, as families, as neighbourhoods, as communities, as States, as nations. As a Goodwill Ambassador for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a former refugee, I am committed to building awareness and to giving a voice to the millions who are forcibly displaced around the world. I have spent two decades advocating for the rights of refugees. In every instance, I find there is nothing more powerful and educational than the telling of a single human story. And today I would like to tell you mine.
I loved my childhood. I grew up in the southern region of the Sudan in a small town called Wau. Things were simple and peaceful. Life was very different compared to my current life in New York. I lived with my mother and father and my eight brothers and sisters. We had no electricity or running water. We had to walk to a pump to get our drinking water. The loo was a hole in the ground. We may have been poor by some people’s standards, but we certainly didn’t feel poor. We were happy, and life was joyful. We were rich in family and country and culture. We had a home. We shared meals together. We went to school. We were free to play and roam the countryside with our friends. To give you a sense of the safety and security we enjoyed, the one rule set by my mother was not to eat mangos from the mango trees on our way home from school, as she feared we would ruin our appetite for supper. For what it is worth, I often broke that rule!
As children we got great thrills from running up a hill in our town and spotting airplanes passing overhead, or wandering with my mother’s cattle on the weekends. There were no televisions, no video games, no phones, no computers, no media of any kind. I grew up in a virtual news blackout. When I say life was simple, it indeed was. Even now, as I sit in my comfortable home in Brooklyn with access to the best of food, lodging and clothes from around the world, I know with a deep certainty that I wouldn’t trade my childhood in the Sudan for anything. When I was 9 years old, however, the life we knew came to an end—a devastating end. In 1983, the Sudan’s Second Civil War broke out. Everything changed.
At first, our parents tried to shield us from any knowledge of the conflict, but as things escalated our protection became impossible. We were aware that our neighbours were being killed. We naturally wondered if our mother or father or uncle or even one of us children would be next. The sounds of gunfire and the vibrations from explosions filled us with dread until we could discover whether our family and neighbours were still safe. It is hard to describe what it feels like to have relatives and friends disappear from your life, one by one. From day to day, we wondered if our loved ones were dead or alive. Dead bodies filled the landscape. The stench of their decay is as vivid to me now as it was then. We no longer roamed freely. We no longer fetched mangos. We lived in a state of shock, of numbness, of terror.
The police of our town were fighting against the militia. When they ran out of ammunition and resources, they forced us to evacuate. After three days spent trapped in our home, we fled with only the clothes on our back s and a few select items like water, a saucepan and sheets. We started walking deep into the bush. We walked with thousands of others from our Dinka tribe. We walked and walked for two straight weeks, desperately seeking safety.
My father was unable to protect us. He was in poor health and had to be carried most of the way. The fear of death was ever-present. We survived the bush foraging for food and taking shelter in abandoned huts when possible. My mother sold salt to others along the way. She saved enough money to get each of us the passports needed to escape to Khartoum. Our family was too big to travel to Khartoum together, so we had to split up. We sent my father first with the hope that he would receive much-needed medical treatment. I followed several months later, and my mother followed several months after me. The journey took its toll on my father. He suffered a stroke. His health deteriorated rather quickly, and he died before we were able to leave Khartoum. My father was a huge force in my life and losing him was crushing. I didn’t know how we would forge a head without him, but somehow we did. In the end, you find strength and you do what must be done.
I was 14 when my mother sent my younger sister and me to London. I can’t quite describe how difficult it was to leave and be separated from her. At least at the time, I didn’t know we would be separated for over two years. I knew with all my heart that she was doing what was best for us, but that didn’t ease the pain. War disperses families in a way you can’t quite understand unless it happens to your own. Our family was torn apart. The families of our relatives and friends were torn apart. Our whole community was shattered into a million pieces in a million different places. Life as we knew it simply no longer existed, and my sister and I were on our way to London. Alone.
We arrived. The climate was different. The people were different. I couldn’t speak English. I started working with an English tutor and enrolled in school as soon as I was allowed. My parents always instilled in us the importance of education. I had loved school in the Sudan and had worried about the amount of schooling I had missed over the past several years. My father had said to us, “they can take a lot of things away from you but they can never take away your education.” Having lost everything at this point, education was all that mattered. I was fiercely devoted to learning. My environment, though, was not an easy one. My classmates did not befriend me and often made fun of me. I suppose I just looked too unusual to them with my ebony black skin, my enormously long limbs and my trademark Dinka features. Nevertheless, I persevered. I was grateful to be safe from harm, and I was grateful to be back in school.
My mother made it to London two years later, and eventually, the famed Sunday came when I was discovered by a model scout in Crystal Palace Park. The rest, as they say, is history. I embarked on a successful career in the world of high fashion. In a matter of years, I went from a faceless statistic to one of the most recognizable faces in the world. I am blessed. And every day I am thankful to the community that supported me from the moment we left our home in Wau to the day I was discovered and my career began.
There is no doubt that I would not be where I am today if it were not for the support of others. Local, national and international community support is critical to those who are fleeing violence. There are no two ways about it. I remember clearly the support of relatives, of friends, of strangers. I remember, too, the support of UNHCR. I remember their field staff on the ground in the Sudan providing basic needs to those of us seeking aid. To this day, the sight of their blue logo still invokes in me a sense of comfort, of safe-keeping.
We must not let the magnitude of the global forcible displacement crisis—the number 60 million—cause us to close our minds and think there is nothing we can do. We must educate ourselves and each other on what it means to be a refugee. I urge you to visit www.unhcr.org, where you can find information on refugee situations across the world. And I urge you to engage with refugees, make an effort to meet refugees. They are in your local community, and they each have a story to share. Listen to their stories. Share their stories. You will be surprised by how much you have in common. It’s in the details of stories that we are reminded of the humanity of these individuals, and in turn we are reminded of our own humanity. It’s through stories that we can begin to understand the fear that refugees have faced and the deprivation they have experienced. It’s through stories that we come to appreciate really what it means to lose two, three, sometimes many more, years of education as a child, what it means to live without shelter, what it means to walk endlessly, to be torn apart from the people you love, to truly have no place to take your family. The better we understand their plight, and the better we appreciate the extraordinary resilience t hey have found in order to simply survive, the better equipped we are to help. And help we must. Together we must stand in solidarity with refugees.