The University of Iowa

The story behind the supermodel

March 22nd, 2013

Alek Wek to speak on life as a refugee

By Lauren Katalinich

You may recognize her striking face from fashion spreads in Elle and Vogue or the Victoria's Secret runway, but Alek Wek has another story to tell. Not that of an international supermodel but of the struggles of life as a refugee.

On April 5, Wek will tell the story of her personal journey as a refugee and her current work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) when she appears as a guest on International Programs’ WorldCanvass television and radio program as part of the UI Provost’s Global Forum on Refugees in the Heartland. WorldCanvass will be held in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber from 5 to 7 p.m., on Friday, April 5, 2013, and the public is invited to attend. See the event poster

In the long years after conflict erupted in 1985, the brutal Sudanese civil war forced thousands of individuals and families to leave their homeland to find safety. Among them were 14-year-old Alek Wek, her mother, and her eight siblings. Wek made her way to London where she worked hard to learn English and get an education.

In 1995, at 18, she was approached by a scout at a London street fair who urged her to pursue a modeling career. Wek quickly rose to the spotlight as a fresh and unique look among the monochromatic skin tones of the fashion world, helping to revolutionize ideas of beauty in haute couture.

Over a decade later and leading a flourishing career, Wek is much more than a model. She is equally famous for her passionate work as an advocate for refugees serving as a United Nations refugee agency supporter. She participated in the first Refugee Congress in Washington, D.C., where refugees and former refugees from across the country came together to discuss issues affecting them in the United States and served as an advisory board member for the U.S. Committee on Immigrants and Refugees.

In 2012, Wek returned to her home town of Wau for the first-year anniversary of South Sudan’s independence. The country she fled is now home to hundreds of thousands of refugees as the oil disputes on its northern border continue. The war for independence may be over but the struggle to rebuild lost livelihoods is just beginning. During her visit to South Sudan, Wek spoke with many refugees on the challenges of resettlement.  Accessible schooling and infrastructure development are now key issues in Wek’s personal advocacy for the welfare of refugees undergoing resettlement.

Above all, Wek hopes to convince the world not to forget the individuality of refugees—to remember that these are real people, and families with dignity, working hard to reclaim and rebuild the lives they lost when they were forced to leave everything they knew behind.

This video by the UNHCR follows Wek during her 2012 trip to South Sudan as she visits her home city and speaks with refugees about the struggles they face in resettling into their homeland.

Alek Wek's Journey Home

For more information on WorldCanvass and the complete list of guests, click here.

Alek Wek's appearance is part of a larger UI conference:
Refugees in the Heartland
April 4-7, 2013

The conference will bring together refugee experts and leaders from the Midwest and the nation to discuss rights of refugees, the long history of refugee resettlement in Iowa, the impact of international refugee crises, and more. Learn More