When she was nine, her country split in two. Her family also shattered, with her father leaving his wife and children. Sectarian violence erupted in Sudan, forcing her mother to flee with her kids to neighboring Uganda. Now, at 19, Eman Deng is flipping that traumatic history on its head. After being scouted on Instagram, the up-and-coming model is fast conquering the runways, walking for Thom Browne and Rick Owens and working with Chalayan and Halpern. She opens up about being a refugee, finding her feet in the industry – and her wishes of returning to her homeland one day.
What was it like growing up in Sudan?
It was nice as we were living as a family, all together. I’m Christian, but Khartoum [where I lived] is a Muslim city and all of my childhood friends were Muslim; it was good to learn about a religion different to my own. We Christians go to church on Sundays and Muslims go to the mosque on Fridays but God and Allah are the same. At school, before classes, we would say prayers from the Quran; I still know them. I love the fact that I was exposed to this amazing religion.
What are your strongest memories of Sudan?
I have good memories of visiting my grandparents’ house and spending time with my cousins. When Sudan and South Sudan separated [in 2011], a lot of people were forced to move – the Muslims and Christians each got their own side. I was nine years old and had to move to a different country, learn another language… It gave me a lot of trauma. My dad left after the country separated so I was raised by a single mother, who decided we should move to Uganda where there are better opportunities. This made us refugees seeking a proper education and a place to stay.
What did being a refugee mean to you?
Trying to fight for your freedom and being denied the right to live in your own country. I believed that the only time you could be separated from your family is when you die; the war taught me this is not the case. Being a refugee was the darkest moment in my life and I don’t wish it on anyone else.
What message of hope do you have for other refugees?
Don’t lose hope. Chase your dreams because a time will come for your country. As long as you are alive, you can make a change and inspire someone else’s life – you can be the reason someone has hope again. Families were killed, homes burned, people went for days with no food but right now we have peace again. The world is standing with us – with refugees – and so many countries are trying to help us. With time, everything is going to be OK.
How were you discovered? Were you surprised?
I was scouted on Instagram by my mother agency in Africa, Isis. I was excited and afraid at the same time. The exciting part was that I was going to travel, appear in magazines, and meet the international models that I’ve always looked up to. Getting a visa wasn’t so easy – I almost quit – but being signed is still one of the best things to occur in my life. It hasn’t been an easy journey so far and I’m still struggling to make a name for myself in the industry. Castings scare me but they have given me the opportunity to meet photographers and people I never thought I would. I believe the most important thing is to love yourself, be true to who you are, and love what you do.
What did your family think of you becoming a model?
They were ready to support me because they believed that I would make it in the industry. When I told them that an agency would like to sign me but that I was scared and afraid, they said, “No, go ahead and do it if that is your dream.” They said that if I believe in myself, I can do it and they will support me. Everyone was so excited, especially my grandparents, my mom, and my aunt. Without my family standing by me I couldn’t have had this career. When I walk in fashion shows I send them pictures and they tell me how proud they are. That gives me even more energy to work hard and to become who I am.
How are you experiencing this new reality of working as a model?
It is interesting and hard, too, at times. I had to cut my hair and go bald in order to stand out and fit into the modeling community. I cried and cried – I couldn’t go bald! My agency said once I cut my hair, I was going to get noticed by international agencies. I thought I looked weird with this new look. But within weeks of the pictures coming out, I got international agencies, including PRM in London.
How do you find life working away from home? Do you find it hard to settle in?
I’ve never lived apart from my sisters – the love and connection we have is strong. Working away from home is definitely one of the hardest things to deal with. During my first season in the UK and then Paris, people had difficulty understanding my English and I often had to repeat myself but I’m in a place that I used to dream about so I’ll continue doing what I’m doing.
What are the best parts of being a model?
Traveling, meeting new people – the models and superstars I used to see on the TV back home – being in magazines and walking the runway for big designers… It’s all a dream come true. I used to see pictures of Tower Bridge in London and imagine myself there – being a model allowed that to happen.
Is there anything that you are learning to deal with?
Some people from my tribe believe modeling means I will be getting naked pictures taken or that I’ll start taking drugs – these are the things I’m fighting against. I want to prove my culture and community wrong and show them a positive side of the industry.
Tell us more about your dream of opening an agency to help young models from Africa.
I’d like it to be one of the strongest in South Sudan and to be a place to educate and offer support. I want to be a person who brings change in my country, to open doors for local girls, and connect them with international clients. But I have so many other plans, too, like opening an orphanage. When I was growing up I didn’t live with both my parents so I understand the struggle. I feel I have to make a change in my community – I’d like to become a voice for the voiceless, to be that hope for someone who has lost hope.
If you could return to a life in Sudan, would you?
If I could, yes, I would return because I love Sudan and being among my people in my homeland is a great blessing. I would bring back the skills that I have learned. I studied science before becoming a model; if I moved back, I would aim to become a doctor.
What message do you have for your country?
Let’s support each other and support the youth – young people are our future. Let’s educate them and raise them in the right way; teach them to be good leaders and responsible people.
What’s the most important life lesson you have learned so far?
Life has taught me that I need to be strong, I need to overcome my fears and believe in myself. We all go through struggles and challenges but life has so many amazing things to offer, too. If I didn’t step up to become who I am today, then I could still be living through the darkest times. My mom is currently sick with hepatitis, which is obviously hurting me the most right now but I need to work at the same time and be strong. I hope sharing my story will help to change people’s lives, to inspire them to stand up and be strong.
Originally published in the April 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia