Supermodel, former refugee and UNHCR Refugee Advocate, Alek Wek
Supermodel, former refugee and UNHCR Refugee Advocate, Alek Wek hands out mosquito nets in Yusuf Batil refugee camp in Upper Nile State, South Sudan to aid in malaria prevention. UNHCR/B.Sokol/July 14, 2012

Supermodel Alek Wek has come far, her journey from her native Sudan to the realm of high fashion rendering her a star. “I think the most important thing especially is that fashion should celebrate women,” the world-renowned beauty said of her profession walking runways and gracing magazine covers.

Yet, the fairy tale ending to Wek’s arduous trek from Africa to London has not dulled her memories of the war that uprooted her family. Wek spoke to theGrio after journeying back to her region of birth to help those still suffering from that conflict’s aftermath.

Wek fled Sudan as a teen in 1991, one of the estimated four million southern Sudanese who were displaced when a civil war erupted in 1983. A 2005 peace accord ended the hostilities, and has since spurred hundreds of thousands to return, lovingly reclaiming lands decades of war had made uninhabitable.

“I couldn’t be there when the independence took place, but I remember people were kissing the ground. It gave me goose bumps,” Wek told theGrio of this momentous event. “I never thought that day would come. The independence was quite emotional for the people of the south. They’ve been through so much bloodshed.”

Now free from the specter of war, displaced citizens are happily returning to the newly christened Republic of South Sudan, which split off from the nation now called Sudan in the north as decreed by the agreement.

Alarmingly, these returning South Sudanese — called “returnees” — are facing fresh perils. Streaming over the boarders by the thousands every day from surrounding regions, returnees are cramming into overflowing refugee camps that are challenging the country’s nascent infrastructure.

“There are currently 180,000 refugees in South Sudan on the new border between the north and south,” Charity Tooze, Senior Communications Officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) explained to theGrio about these circumstances. “This is in addition to the 330,000 refugees who have returned since the treaty dividing the nations was signed in 2005.”

Wek journeyed back to South Sudan in July of 2012 to draw attention to their plight. Her third trip back to her native land since attaining international acclaim, and her first since the treaty, Wek’s latest journey home was an effort at nation-building and national healing. “It was very touching for me when I went back,” she said. “Of course, there are so many challenges.”

Her involvement as a UNHCR Refugee Advocate is bringing vital attention to the circumstances under which the returnees and refugees are living. Cramped in tents. Functioning without running water. Facing malnutrition, disease, and the persistent threat of death as a result.

These shadows could have degraded the gratitude Wek saw everywhere on the faces of those happy to see South Sudan’s independent nationhood. Instead of despair, she warmly related that the South Sudanese are energized to industriously build their future together, noting “the perseverance and the hope… to take this nation to the next level.”

Wek met with refugees such as Rhoda, a mother who bore her children during the war in an area that is mainly desert. “She was so afraid, because the kids grew up in the north,” Wek explained, as Rhoda was concerned that they would never learn to love the south’s lush landscape.

But they were delighted at seeing South Sudan for the first time. “‘Oh, this [is] so beautiful!’ They were so surprised,” Wek said of the moving anecdote. “I mean, they were really, really touch[ed] and they started to adapt. It was a really beautiful moment.”