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This South Sudanese Model’s Journey From a Burning House to Activism Will Break Your Heart

South Sudanese refugee Mari Malek escaped her burning village to find a home in New York and role in the world as a model and artist for change.

Model and activist Mari Malek. Photo: Getty

“My mother was braiding my hair when she started telling me that we would soon leave our country. The villages in South Sudan – including ours, Wau – were under attack. Wau is an ancient, beautiful place. I was only five, but I remember playing in the Jur River that weaved behind our home among mango and lemon trees. There, the earth is so fertile and red, it mesmerizes. South Sudan is home to a mix of indigenous people and Arabs who had immigrated centuries ago from Saudi Arabia. My father, one of the first people to become a teacher in our village and start a school, was the minister of education. We were a well-off family and traveled freely between our homes in the north and the south. But now, during the civil war, everything was being burned and people were being killed. The militia’s tactic was to torture and murder men and boys on the verge of manhood in order to weaken us as a people. Organs were cut out and harvested. Women were raped and taken as slaves, and their children were stolen from them and forced into becoming soldiers. It was something out of this world.

Mari Malek (left) with her mother, Awalith Niahl Diing Mac, and younger siblings Sara And Cici. Courtesy Mari Malek

In Khartoum, my mother – a nurse and a feminist – was experiencing her own turmoil. Like many women in South Sudan, she was being mistreated. The majority of our culture does not advocate women having a voice and this was something she struggled with. When she told my father she was leaving him, he agreed – after all, he would soon marry a fourth wife. One night, my mother bundled myself and my two younger sisters up and we took a helicopter to a port. There, unbeknownst to my father, we found a ship that would take us to Egypt. Despite the surmounting violence, he wanted us all to stay in South Sudan. A politician, he believed that there was corruption and war everywhere. But my mother acted on her intuition. She sold all our gold jewelry, including my earrings, to pay smugglers and we were granted entry aboard the ship. We were put in a small container where we were to remain for almost two weeks as we voyaged to Aswan. Inside, there were no windows and just two skinny beds for the four of us. We could come out only to use a shared toilet. My mother had brought beans and water for us to eat and drink; I was constantly sick and vomiting. This was not a cruise, but survival.

After what felt like an eternity, we reached land and I remember seeing the sun – it was so bright. We met another smuggler who led us to a minibus that took us to Cairo. Along the way, my mother comforted us in our tribal language. We are from the Dinka tribe and ours is an age-old, indigenous culture, from the Nubian bloodline. In South Sudan, one of the main languages is Arabic and so my mother was able to communicate with the Egyptians. Once in Cairo, the smuggler took us to an unofficial refugee camp. The whole place weighed of sadness and darkness. There were trash and clothing everywhere; chickens and goats ran about. Each building was divided into tiny homes. We had a relative who had been living there for many years who took us in. We stayed for a year while my mother situated herself and found an apartment. No longer able to practice nursing, she took work as a maid, cleaning homes and hotels.

Mari Malek in South Sudan with a group of girls she’s helped through her No Pad No School initiative. Courtesy Mari Malek

We were often discriminated against. People would spit on us and grab us from the chairs on trains and shout that we shouldn’t sit down. Imagine, grown men and women doing that to little kids. I was nine, Cici was seven, and Sara was two. But we also met people who listened to my mother’s story and helped us. Her goal was to get us out – not only out of the war in South Sudan, but also out of Egypt, towards a better life and education. She applied for asylum with the United Nations upon our arrival. Remarkably, she was never discouraged. I thought we would stay there forever. It was four years into our new life in Egypt when we learned that we had been granted refugee status. We were transferred to the US and I remember getting on a plane along with other refugees. It was both scary and exciting. It was the dead of winter and below freezing when we landed in Newark, New Jersey; it was also the first time we saw snow. Even though we were poor and suffering, my mother always raised us not to look, act, or feel lesser than anyone. We sisters were often dressed the same – as much as it bothered us – and were just wearing Levi’s denim when we arrived. My mother couldn’t handle the cold, nor the fact that we had been placed right in the heart of crime and chaos. Every night, we heard gunshots in our building. We didn’t have anyone to talk to. Everyone looked at us as though we were strange creatures, so dark and so tall. ‘Go back to Africa,’ they would say.

My mother discovered that we had relatives in San Diego and within six months, coordinated a transfer to California. I got to meet my cousins – we were all the same age. They had been granted a better placement than we had, but they deserved it. They were one of the families who walked by foot from South Sudan to Ethiopia, who had to turn around upon realizing that the border was closed, and continue through South Sudan to Kenya, which hosts one of the largest refugee camps in the world. I can’t imagine walking for months and not having anything to eat but grass, seeing dead people in the river you used to play in and having to drink that water because you have no other choice.

Meeting my cousins was a beautiful moment. After all those years, we were finally able to connect with other children. We talked about how we got teased all the time and that we hated English classes because they were so easy – ‘This is a cat. This is a dog.’ We made fun of that. We moved into our cousins’ apartment. They were five kids, along with their mom and grandmother. Our neighbors thought we were the strangest people, 11 of us in that apartment! I had no possessions but my comfort was knowing that we were safe. I never thought about toys. None of those things even crossed our minds. Just survive, be safe, be alive.

Mari Malek in Kenneth Cole’s SS16 Courageous Class campaign

I started eighth grade and it was a year of firsts. I got my first period and got into my first fight. We had to start defending ourselves; we have rights, just like you do. Then, one day, in my mid-teens, a woman approached my cousin and I on the street to tell us that we should model. We didn’t know what that meant. As children, we had never seen magazines in our country. ‘Do you know Alek Wek?’ she asked. ‘You’re so beautiful, you can be just like her,’ she said of the South Sudanese model, also a refugee from Wau, who fled the civil war in 1991. She told us that through modeling, we could earn money and travel the world. We were determined to help our families. A well-off friend let me borrow the US $325 dollars I needed to audition for a scout, and I was the top person selected by 16 different agencies. But I couldn’t travel to Paris, London, or New York… I didn’t have any money, let alone a passport. Someone suggested that I go to an agency in Los Angeles and I managed to secure a role in an Usher video, but I didn’t have the means to get there, so I missed it.

Everything seemed so challenging. In my early twenties, I met another scout from America’s Next Top Model. At the time I had a great job in a bank, an apartment, and car. I was able to help my mom and live an OK life. Both my sister and I were recruited and we were going to be the first African refugee siblings on the show. But everything fell apart because we still didn’t have our papers, and I was fired from my job because I had skipped work to audition.

Originally published in the March 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia

Mari Malek with former US President Barack Obama in 2016.

That day, I spoke to God. ‘If modeling is meant for me, I need a sign.’ There was an older woman outside my building who was always talking to herself. She approached me and said, ‘You’re not supposed to be here. You’re supposed to be in New York, modeling, doing something big. Go to New York.’ I took her advice. It was 2006, my Polaroids were sent out and the feedback was very positive. But the clients wanted to shave my head, just like Alek Wek. Every South Sudanese girl was expected to look like her. We didn’t like that, but at the time, we were expected to model and shut up. I’ve since met Alek, Naomi, and Iman, who was particularly supportive and loving. I wish the sisterhood was bigger. A lot of the models who start out are very young, innocent, and uneducated about the industry. They are ruining themselves, whether it is depression, drugs, or even suicide – those things happen because there is not enough support. This is what I do through my community Models with Purpose. I offer real advice: not every photo has to be a nude. If you don’t feel comfortable, talk to your agent. Fashion has the power to connect people. We should advocate more. I’ve since been cast in campaigns for Lanvin and been featured in music videos with Lady Gaga and Kanye West, but whenever I’m working – I also DJ (as DJ Stiletto) and act (The Nile Hilton Incident won the world cinema grand jury prize at Sundance) – what’s on my mind is how I can have more of an impact in life, beyond just existing or ‘making it’ in the industry.My mission is to be a change-maker. I am an artist with a voice. I was invited to work with former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the Millennium Development Goals. Sometimes I would be the only refugee at a table along with world leaders and experts from the field. I told them that to change the world, we need to educate. Education is sustainable. If you feed your mind, you feed your entire life. In countries that are facing war, there are more guns in the hands of children than pens. Through my non-profit Stand for Education, we provide access to and funds for schools in South Sudan. I also started a campaign, No Pad No School. Girls are not going to school because they menstruate and are married off at 11 years old. We provide them with menstruation panties that last for two years to keep them in the classroom. My humanitarian work was instilled in me via everything I saw growing up. At our home in Khartoum, my mom would always take care of people – the injured, or burned. This stayed in my subconscious. When we were in California, we got our clothes second-hand from a priest who had created a community for refugees. That’s where I learned how to give back. If I am going to be put in a magazine, I want people to know: I am Mari Malek. I have a story and a purpose.”

As told to Caterina Minthe.

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