A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

Alek Wek: Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel
By Dreena Whitfield

From the tumultuous roads of Sudan to the runway shows of some of the fashion industry's most prominent designers, Alek Wek has made a name for herself, all while knocking down barriers.Ã'  Her autobiographical novel, Alek, details her metamorphosis from a psoriasis clad Sudanese refugee to an international supermodel. However, it is not all glitz, glamour and stilettos; her story will open your eyes to the realities of the struggle in Africa.

Alek's rags to riches story began in Wau, Sudan, where she was the seventh of nine children. When a civil war came marching into their town and took the lives of nearly two million people, the peaceful and surprisingly "normal" childhood that Alek knew came to a hasty end. Strapped with just the clothes on their backs and a few household items, the Wek family fled Wau on foot to a village of a distant family member for safety. Walking past dead bodies on the road and living in constant fear is not the ideal story of an international supermodel. Although Alek is a proud member of the Dinka tribe, she recalls being an outcast amongst her people once her middle class family migrated to the village. They dressed different, acted different, lived different; the whole lifestyle was a far stretch from the upbringing that she had become accustomed to. After the condition of her father's ailing hip continued to grow worst with each new day, the Wek family left the village with hopes to return to Wau and flee Sudan in the pursuit of a brighter future.

Fleeing from Sudan was a difficult task for the Wek family; they couldn't leave together and they had to "make ways" around the military. Upon entering London, Alek didn't speak English and was still covered with psoriasis, which made the adaptation to the new environment difficult. She was often called ugly because of her striking looks, tall and lanky physique, her dark brown skin and natural hair. The pride she had in herself helped her endure the negativity and focus on her education. It was not long before Alek was discovered in an outdoor market in London by a talent agent and asked to consider modeling professionally. "I couldn't believe anyone would want me as a model," Alek says; her beauty was unconventional and far from the norm of that time, so being offered the opportunity to be a model was shocking.

The fashion world didn't accept Alek with open arms; she didn't automatically grace the covers of Elle or the runways of Diane von Furstenberg. She was presented with the same obstacles that other African and African American top models have faced - Ã' the struggle to find matching makeup, being turned away because of their skin color, and overall not having the right "look."Ã'  These road blocks haunted Alek as well. However, Alek was darker than Naomi Campell, Tyra Banks and Iman, and looked completely different than they did. Ã' Her dark skin tone was a major obstacle - it defined her as a model; she was often type-casted for roles that only called for "black features".

Regardless of these many obstacles, Alek is a credit to every African woman who wants to break down barriers! Alek was able to apply her experiences and fashion know-how to become a designer. Ã' She has created Wek1933, a handbag line in remembrance of her father. She has become one of the top models in the industry and when she's not doing cover shoots for glossy magazines or striding down a runway, she is heavily involved in working to refocus the world's attention on those still struggling behind in Sudan. Alek has taken small opportunities and made them advantageous.Ã'  She is proof that your start is not indicative of your ending.