A Long Journey Home: Alek Wek Returns to South Sudan
Alek Wek's stellar modeling career has taken her all across the globe, but it's been years since she's been back to her homeland in the Sudan — until she traveled there this month. Wek, who was the first African model to cover Elle, went to the newly formed nation of South Sudan to help celebrate the country's very first independence day. She's also working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help the country develop and grow, and told us that for now, her work in fashion will take a backseat to her humanitarian efforts.
"I will carry on utilizing my voice to give back: that's long term," she said over the phone in Juba, South Sudan's capital. "I'm already modeling in moderation because my mom is already on my case. At first it was like, 'Education, then a job, and now what's happening, where are the babies?'" she added, laughing. "So I think you can't just be hopping around in planes. You need to slow down a little bit."
However, Wek said that working in fashion was important, because it gave her the platform to affect change. "It's definitely given me a voice, and I think we have such a responsibility to use that," she explained. "Even if I wasn't a fashion model . . . I still think that we all as individuals can do something and make a difference in another human being's life."
To that end, Wek — who has walked the runway for Dior, Valentino, and Diane von Furstenberg, among others — has focused on helping the UNHCR develop agriculture, health, and education initiatives in the country. While she was there this month, Wek visited the nation's new first lady, spent time with refugees waiting to travel back to their hometowns, and spoke at a conference about the importance of schooling children — and especially young women. "When you educate a woman, the entire nation is educated," she said during her speech.
"Who's going to lead this country going forward is the young people, the youth, which I feel really strongly about," she told us. "When you educate the young people, you don't just educate them to be literate. You educate them to not repeat the same bad mistakes that have taken place in the past."
A look back at Wek's decade-plus on the runway, here in the gallery.
Photo: Alek Wek walks during the Anja Gockel Fall 2010 fashion show.