In July 2011, the Republic of South Sudan finally gained its independence after a long and protracted fight, encompassing decades of bloodshed and war. Alek Wek, South Sudanese supermodel, has transcended fashion to challenge western notions of beauty whilst simultaneously campaigning for change in the country she escaped at 14. Speaking with Alek about the opportunities liberation can bring to her people, her love for her country and delight in its freedom was infectious.

‘There were a lot of emotions, having grown up in South Sudan, getting displaced from there with my family when we had to walk for two weeks with thousands of people, just marching towards the bush. So I know what that’s like [the displacement of Sudanese refugees] — and nobody can really even have access to see what’s going on. That’s why I really felt it wasn’t even a decision to get involved. Going back after the independence, I was in disbelief — because as a kid I didn’t just think that there would never be peace in place with the North, because there’s so much bloodshed that took place, but I never foresaw that there would be an independent South Sudan. It’s not just the Dinka tribe that I was born into who were affected, there are so many other tribes: the Balanda, the Jur Chol… It was incredible to go to Juba because I could see the excitement of a whole new nation, a new country who are willing to do whatever they can because they don’t want anymore bloodshed. I could listen to every story, the men especially — the people in the South have lost so many young men because they have had to draft. If there were three boys [in a family] then two of them had to go… there are so many challenges. That was very touching.’

Speaking about her journey as a model and her choice to now ‘model in moderation’, Alek describes a worldview that extends beyond the indubitable achievement of being the first African model on the cover of Elle magazine. ‘I didn’t really fill the void I had in fashion… I felt like I should use it to shed a light on issues that are bigger than all of us, because you can really get wrapped up you know? Being in the field [in Sudan] it’s — well, there’s no words to describe it. The workers with these organisations, it takes love to do that, it takes commitment to do that and I always say its very inspiring — I always say it’s not just giving, you get. You get more. And I like to go to sleep feeling good’.

Whilst the new country is filled with potential, the current reality is that thousands of refugees are returning every day to a country that doesn’t have the means to support them. Refugee camps are overflowing — there are currently 180,000 displaced Sudanese people on the new border between North and South, in addition to the 330,000 refugees who have returned since the treaty dividing the nations was signed 6 years ago. Alek works as a UNHCR Refugee Advocate, drawing attention to the devastating circumstances that await those finally returning home — there is not enough space, no running water and the camps are rife with disease and malnutrition. The camps are repeatedly flooded, rendering them unsafe and inaccessible upon arrival by refugees who have travelled on foot for weeks with little or no food and rest. Médecins sans Frontières have released figures showing that child mortality rates are over twice the international average and the devastating reality is that the new country is at a tipping point — it could flourish under appropriate attention, or sink back into devastation.

In its fragile state, it is the education of the women in the country that Alek focuses on particularly, stating ‘young girls educate a whole family — education doesn’t take away from them being a woman, from being a wife… education saves lives.’ Growing up in a culture that she feels celebrated women, she is enthusiastic for fashion to mimic the love of diversity that she was imbued with as a child: ‘fashion should celebrate women and I’m glad that I grew up in a culture that celebrated women — tall, short, different sizes, the way you carry yourself… I always believed I’m going to be someone who feels comfortable in their own shoes and I want every kid to feel that…’

Her endearing and unrelenting optimism extends to the refugees finally returning to their homeland: ‘You have children who don’t even know how to live in the South, but they’re excited to see rain, to see flowers, things bloom! The land has gold! Diamonds, even. I never knew they had diamonds… if it’s dealt with right, then it’s gonna be like New York, like America!’ It’s this boundless, almost childlike eagerness that makes her such a wonderful spokeswoman for the reunited country, an enthusiasm that contrasts the aching poignancy of her stories growing up and the current circumstances in the camps.

It is startling interjections like these into myriad charming anecdotes that remind you that the reality of Sudan’s recent history is devastation and help you understand why the recent developments have been met by Alek with such unremitting positivity accompanied by an impassioned desire to help rehabilitate the refugees to their homeland.

To Alek, infrastructure and investment are the key to Sudan’s progression towards a brighter future — ‘Oh my god! When I went there, you should have seen how many Chinese! Of course people from other countries, Kenya, Uganda… If you think about it, America’s taken 200 or so years of independence to become what it is today — in 1 year in Juba it’s Ugandans in the market, Chinese supermarkets!’

It is investment in education and infrastructure, alongside immediate aid, that can establish longevity for the new country. Building a nation state is a monumental task, particularly in an area with an extended history of conflict and a large influx of displaced citizens, but it is far from impossible. She ends on an impassioned call to arms: ‘we can share each other’s stories; they are the stories that inspire us. If we all can be able to be a little bit courageous and stress the importance of safety for the refugees — if we share that message, we don’t know how much of an impact we could make for millions of families.’ And she’s right — it is through promotion of an issue that can so easily be dismissed as hopeless in the west that aid can be organised to support a new country that could prosper beyond its own wildest dreams.