For nearly two decades, Brooklyn resident Alek Wek has enthralled the modeling world with her unmistakable grace, beauty and poise. By all accounts Alek is living an easy life, as she is continuously asked to represent the world’s most prestigious fashion designers. She has one of the most recognizable faces in the modeling industry.
Life for Alek did not start out this way. The seventh of nine children, she was born in 1977 in Wau, in south Sudan. Wau was home for the Wek family until the early 1980s when civil war tore through the region. Its aftermath was devastating: homes destroyed, families displaced and lives lost. She and her family would join countless refugees who were forced to flee from their home.
Alek has spent much of her adult life brining attention to the plight of refugees who presently live in south Sudan. She has appeared before the United Nations, as a member of the U.S. Committee for Refugees’ Advisory Council. With the trials of her youth behind her, I have come across many on-line posts by people who ask why she is doing this. Simply put, her story is their story.
When speaking with journalists during a visit back to the Sudan in 2012, Alek spoke of terror that, to a small child, seemed to last forever. She recalled days and nights when she and her family would remain locked in their homes to escape the bombing going on around them. Nine children and two adults had to crawl around on the floor to avoid detection by anyone outside. They would spend their days sitting on the floor and speaking in whispers so that no one would hear them. At night, the floor was their bed. Remember Alek was a little girl who, like most of us when we were children, longed to run and play with friends and simply to have fun. When Alek and her family were not sequestered inside, they were running to hide in the bush when the bombing became unbearable. The bush would replace the refuge of their home. Instead of sitting and crawling on the floor, they were sitting and crawling on the ground. When they were weary from a long day of hiding, hoping and praying, the ground became their bed. The only food they had was whatever they could find. When I read Alek’s recount of this time, I can only imagine the inner strength her parents called upon to keep up their children’s spirits. Before the civil war interrupted their lives, Alek’s father was a Minister of Education. Now he was forced to hide and crawl in the bush with his family.
Eventually they escaped from Wau to Khartoum, the capital in northern Sudan. She remembers the planes would come every few days, and that she and her family would run to get on line, hoping to be rescued. They were turned away five times before their chance finally came. With so many children, the family was forced to split up into small groups. Her father and an older sister left first. She and another sister would follow. Her mother stayed behind until all of the children had escaped. For Alek, this was the first time she was separated from her mother, and she describes this as one of her most heartbreaking experiences. For the next four years, Khartoum would be Alek’s new home, until she went to London. Her father died before his family left Khartoum.
In the early 1990s, Alek arrived in London and lived with an older sister. Once there, she was able to go to school and learned English very quickly. After high school, she studied business and fashion technology at the prestigious London College of Fashion. To support herself, Alek held various after-school jobs. She always sent money back home to her mother in Khartoum until they were reunited a couple of years later. Her remaining siblings would eventually be given sanctuary in Australia and Canada.
In 1995, while shopping in a market in London, she caught the attention of a modeling agency scout. Shortly thereafter, she was signed to Models One agency. Her first assignment would be in a video, GoldenEye, which was produced by Tina Turner. Alek also appeared in Vibe and i-D magazines.
In 1996, Alek traveled to Paris where she was signed by Ford Modeling Agency. From there her career took off. One year later, in 1997, she made her runway debuts for Alexander McQueen, Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier and Ralph Lauren in Paris and then New York. With a career that began from truly humble beginnings, she has earned the title of “supermodel.” New York Magazine has done an impressive job of highlighting Alek’s career since 1995. For more information, please click here Alek’s career highlights.
After listening to various interviews Alek has given, I am impressed by the way she tells her story. Her early life was not idyllic, for it speaks to a certain pain, confusion and agony that I have never known. Yet, she recounts her story in a quiet, tender manner. Her voice never gives way to the pain, bitterness and anger that I know she must feel. Here is the link to a very short video so that you can hear for yourself.
Alek continues to raise awareness of the plight of refugees in her native Sudan. Working with the U.S. Committee for Refugees’ Advisory Council is extremely important to her. She is also a member of Doctors without Borders (an organization that allows medical professionals to come into Africa and care for the needy by bringing medicines and surgical techniques), and sits on the board of World Vision, which provides another way for her to focus the world on refugees and their needs.
In 2007, she also wrote her biography, Alek: My Life from Sudanese Refugee to the International Supermodel. One day when you are looking for something different to read, I encourage you to give this book a try. Alek is truly an impressive young woman with a powerful story to tell.
We at Brooklyn Legends admire Alek for using her international platform to raise awareness to this human rights issue. As new developments arise, we will be sure to provide you with updates.
The Daily Beast, Women in the World, Aug. 28, 2012 Interview
UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency, July 25, 2012 Interview with Alek Wek
The Daily Beast – From Newsweek, Hunger Diary authored by Alek Wek
Brooklyn Magazine Cover, Aug. 22, 2012
Alke at the United Nations, courtesy of UNHCR, July 2011
Alek with children in her native Sudan, UNHRC, Aug. 2012
Alek on the cover of Elle Magazine, Nov. 1997
Alek Wek on the cover of her Biography, Aug. 2007
Alek in a bridal gown for As If Magazine, Jan. 2013