International Supermodel Revisits Refugee Past

Originally published on August 3, 2011 12:49 pm

Alek Wek is among 60 refugees sharing personal stories on the 60th anniversary of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention. She says stigma should never be attached to the term "refugee," and shares her struggles, triumphs and advocacy work with host Michel Martin. The United Nations' Larry Yungk also discusses the intent of this week's "First Refugee Congress."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we will talk to a member of Congress who was arrested outside the White House last week. He was trying to send a message to President Obama about the large number of undocumented immigrants who are being deported on his watch. Our conversation with Representative Luis Gutierrez is in just a few minutes.

But, first, she's hit the fashion runway for fashion powerhouses like Michael Kors, Chanel and Christian Dior. She was named one of People magazine's, quote, "50 Most Beautiful People," unquote. And one of the quote, "50 Most Influential Faces in Fashion." But Alek Wek is not just a supermodel. She is also a refugee. Her family left their home in Sudan when she was 14, fleeing civil war for the chance of a more stable life in London.

Today she shares her journey at the first refugee congress here in Washington, D.C. It's hosted by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. She's one of 60 refugees who have come together, or former refugees, we should say, who've come together to tell their stories on the 60th anniversary of the 1951 United Nations refugee convention. They're sharing their struggles, their triumphs and their proposed solutions to problems that others face when they are forced to leave their homelands.

Here to tell us more about her journey is supermodel Alek Wek, along with Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Thank you both so much for joining us.

ALEK WEK: Thank you so much for having me.

LARRY YUNGK: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: You know, as we are speaking now, we've just talked about this with former Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, who's talking about the situation in Somalia and Sudan, as we've just said, people are on the move now fleeing both civil strife and also famine in the Eastern Africa region. So, Alek Wek, for those who've never had this experience, I wanted to ask if you could just describe what it's like to make the decision that you have to leave your home.

WEK: Oh wow, where do I start? I mean, as a young child, having to have gone through the civil war in the south of Sudan and I had to flee with my family, it wasn't a matter of choice, it was literally getting to be forced to leave your own home. And miles and miles of walking, not just my family and I, but thousands of people and literally just taking whatever that you can carry on you.

So it wasn't particularly easy, but also it wasn't safe as well. And not understanding as a child why we are getting forced to leave out of our own home, not by choice. So it's a lot of feeling of being vulnerable, not being heard, not having really much hope. So it's very scary. And it's really wonderful to see the light. To see, you know, different ideals. People such as UNHCR really come forward and speak up for the voices. That was really touching.

MARTIN: Larry Yungk, will you tell us a little bit more about - with all of the people that you've worked with, what is the hardest part of the refugee experience?

YUNGK: Well, I think for every refugee it's the loss that they experience. They lose the connections with their homeland. They lose the connections with their family, with their culture. But when you talk to refugees, often what they're telling you is the feeling that they feel most is alone. I mean even if you're there with a lot of other refugees, you're by yourself. And all the grounding that you've had in your whole life is gone. And you don't know what lies before you. And that continues on sometimes for a very long period if you stay in refugee camps or you're a refugee in the city and without status. So it's kind of the unknown and then that feeling of being alone.

MARTIN: And, also, the welcome, too, and the place that you're going to, and some of the places that you might be headed, they might feel the strain of receiving large numbers of refugees, even if it's an affluent place like London, let alone, you know, a refugee camp or a border community which already perhaps feels itself to be under resourced.

YUNGK: Absolutely. For the refugees, which is a pretty small percentage, though, who get resettled to countries like the U.S. or England or Australia, it's true. You're now adjusting to a new culture and people are trying to help you - sometimes maybe not always in the right way. But they're trying their best. And it boasts the community learning how to adjust to you and you to your new community.

And that's a big adjustment particularly for some of the older people who've, you know, this is a huge change. Kids sometimes adjust a little bit more quickly. But it's quite an adjustment both for refugees and communities.

MARTIN: Alek Wek, you know, many people who've gone through an experience like this would want to put it far behind them. They would not want to be reminded of those difficult days. And now that you are, you know, literally an international celebrity, you've chosen to, you know, revisit that experience. And can you just tell us why, why it is that you've chosen to talk about it?

WEK: Oh, I would say no matter how difficult or hard or very emotional as it is, we always have to face our fear. We always have to revisit them in order for us to move forward. And that's what I did. Like, six, seven years ago I went back with my mother when we were allowed to reenter the country after the peace agreement and I did a documentary and I came back and I couldn't just get on the runways and do all of my shoots.

I said, you know, these memoirs are not just my emotional situation, what I've been through, I really felt it was about the Sudanese people, especially the southern Sudanese people.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking to supermodel and refugee advocate, Alek Wek. We're also speaking with Larry Yungk. He's the senior resettlement officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

So I was just sort of picking up on that point, what is the message that you'd like to impart by participating in the refugee congress? And I'm also curious about how you feel about the term itself refugee?

WEK: I would say it's very simple as this. We must never think or even feel that a refugee term is a stigma because it is not. If anything, it's very strong and it's very, very sensitive because it's like if we put a stigma on it, that tells us something as people, as a society. And if that was happening to us, wouldn't we want somebody else to be sensitive to the fact that, you know, we've been stripped from everything if we don't have families, if we cannot see our family members. That's painful. That's who you are as a human being.

And if we can't do that fundamentally, that really tells us something about us as people not looking out for another human being fellow. So I would say refugee totally is what it is. I have been there and I have felt it. And if I didn't have a community that looked out for me, that have gave me a chance, I wouldn't be Alek Wek in here right now talking to you.

MARTIN: Looking fabulous.

WEK: Thank you.

MARTIN: Just feel I should mention that. Looking fabulous.

So, Larry Yungk, what about that? I'm just sort of picking up on a similar question I'm interested in. What is the intent at this congress? And do you feel that there is perhaps more reluctance to embrace refugees in the current environment, whether because of the 9/11 attacks or for whatever reason?

YUNGK: Well, our hope at the refugee conference, by bringing people together who've been here - some of our oldest members of the congress came here right after World War II, up to refugees who've just arrived in the last three months. And the amazing thing is how much commonality you find on certain issues. I mean obviously the U.S. has resettled during that time three million refugees.

And three million people are all different. They're all individuals. But, still, there's this experience that they've gone through as refugees. So I think one of the things that we're looking for in this 60th anniversary for UNHCR is really to stop for a moment and just talk to the refugees who are here and say what have you as refugees have gone through this experience, whether you went through it 50 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, what worked and what didn't. How did you succeed?

We have people who are former congressmen. We have people like Alek Wek who have done, you know, fantastic things. But we have people who've just opened businesses and moved ahead with their lives and not everyone has to end up being a superstar. People are looking to move on with their lives. And I think that's the kind of thing we're hoping to learn from the refugees. Like how can we and how can we talk to the U.S. government and others to say let's do this job better.

MARTIN: Larry Yungk is a senior resettlement officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Alek Wek is a supermodel and refugee advocate. They both were kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. taking a break from the first refugee congress, which is meeting here in the nation's capital - this nation's capital. Thank you both so much for joining us.

WEK: Thank you so much for having us.

YUNGK: Thank you for having us.

WEK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.