Alek Wek

As a former refugee, supermodel Alek Wek knows what it is like to be forced to flee one’s homeland. Having fled Sudan at the age of 14, she now works tirelessly campaigning for refugee rights, lending her support to vital UNHCR projects in South Sudan and being particularly passionate about female education. She was made a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in 2013.

As one of the most recognizable faces in today’s fashion industry, her story resonates with audiences across the world. Having already conquered the world of fashion, off the runway she has established herself as an author and an artist/designer.

Alek Wek and UNHCR

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Alek Wek returns to South Sudan to celebrate the country’s first year of independence. Photo Credit: UNHCR/Brian Sokol
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Alek Wek returns to South Sudan to celebrate the country’s first year of independence. Photo Credit: UNHCR/Brian Sokol

Having helped redefine concepts of beauty in the fashion world, Alek Wek was a perfect fit for UNHCR. Her celebrated career in the fashion industry combined with her own experiences of conflict and forced migration make her a force to be reckoned with and today she is as well known for her tireless advocacy efforts on behalf of the less fortunate as she is for walking the runways for some of the world’s most prestigious brands.

Wek first collaborated with UNHCR in 2000 for the RESPECT campaign. Since 2011 Wek has been an active supporter of UNHCR, raising awareness about the hardships refugees are faced with in Africa. She joined UNHCR’s advocacy efforts as a notable delegate to the first Refugee Congress in the United States, which was convened as a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of UNHCR.

Wek also spoke on behalf of UNHCR at the Educate a Child launch event in Qatar, hosted by Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. The initiative works in some of the most challenging environments in the world to bring access to education for the most vulnerable children. It has a specific focus on refugees and internally displaced people.

In 2012, the supermodel returned to her native country, South Sudan with UNHCR to mark the nation’s first anniversary. During her stay she met with refugees and visited UNHCR programs aimed at helping the many hundreds of thousands of refugees rebuilding their lives. During her visit she placed particular attention on the need for education, access to healthcare and agriculture.

“As a refugee from South Sudan, I understand what it is like to be forced from your home. It’s painful, scary and can separate you from your loved ones” – Wek said of her visit.

Her work is all the more important given her perspective on a more positive future for South Sudan and offers a more hopeful narrative to the many millions of refugees across both South Sudan and East Africa.

Today, Wek continues to be active in her support for UNHCR, undertaking numerous high profile media interviews to highlight the needs of refugees worldwide. In July 2014 she spoke to Huffington Post live about her personal experience as a refugee and her work for UNHCR. Watch the interview.

Biography

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Alek Wek visits returnees in Juba, South Sudan. Photo credit: UNHCR/Brian Sokol
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Alek Wek visits returnees in Juba, South Sudan. Photo credit: UNHCR/Brian Sokol

Alek Wek was born in Wau, South Sudan in 1977, and raised as part of the Dinka tribe. Forced to flee her hometown at the age of 14 to escape civil war, she made her way to the United Kingdom from Khartoum. It was here that she was discovered at a funfair and has since become one of fashion’s most recognizable faces.

Following an early appearance in the music video of Tina Turner’s Goldeneye, Wek took the fashion industry by storm appearing on the front cover of Elle Magazine in November 1997. Since then, Wek has built a career spanning nearly two decades at the top of the fashion industry. Having been named one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” and “50 Most Influential Faces in Fashion”, she has walked the runway for the world’s leading fashion houses, including Calvin Klein, Christian Dior, Gucci, Vivienne Westwood, Chanel, Alexander McQueen, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan.

Wek now lives in New York City and balances a busy career both on and off the runway with her activism. With some of fashion’s most prestigious contracts already under her belt, Wek has expanded her reach beyond the runway, dabbling in designing, television and writing. Wek became a published author in 2007 with the release of her memoire, Alek: From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel. In it, she chronicles her own experiences of war and forced migration and her extensive campaigning for human rights, focusing particularly on refugees, women and children, and education. She has spoken about refugees before the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus and previously served as an advisory board member for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. In 2014 she was announced as an official ambassador of the H&M Conscious Foundation.