“There is no doubt that I would not be where I am today if it were not for the support relatives, friends, strangers – and UNHCR. I remember UNHCR field staff on the ground in Sudan, providing basic needs to those of us seeking aid. To this day, the sight of UNHCR’s blue logo still invokes in me a sense of comfort, of safe-keeping.”
Supermodel Alek Wek was appointed UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in 2013, after years of committed support. As a former refugee from what is now South Sudan, Alek knows what it is like to be forced to flee her home. She now travels across the globe using her voice, her platform and her story to advocate on behalf of refugees and to support the life-saving work of UNHCR.
Alek was only nine when civil war broke out in Sudan. “Life as we knew it came to a devastating end," she remembers. "Our parents tried to shield us from the conflict but the sounds of gunfire and the vibrations of explosions filled us with dread. Dead bodies filled the landscape.”
Alek and her family fled their village and survived in the bush, foraging for food and taking shelter in abandoned huts until they managed to escape to Khartoum, from where Alek’s mother sent her and one of her sisters to London. “I knew with all my heart that she was doing what was best for us, but that didn’t ease the pain.”
Having lost so much, education became the only thing that mattered to Alek and she was fiercely devoted to learning, despite arriving in the UK without her family intact and unable to speak English. Soon after being discovered by a model scout, Alek embarked on a successful international career in the world of high fashion. “In a matter of years, I went from a faceless refugee statistic to one of the most recognizable faces in the world.”
In addition to visiting refugees and witnessing UNHCR's frontline work, Alek has helped amplify the refugee cause through many different projects. For World Refugee Day 2016 Alek joined refugees, UNHCR staff and other high profile supporters in our video message of solidarity with forcibly displaced persons around the globe. Alek later spoke in the UN General Assembly Hall at the handing in of UNHCR’s #WithRefugees petition, the largest-ever petition for refugees, to the UN Secretary General, ahead of the historic UN Summit on Refugees & Migrants in September 2016. In December of that same year, Alek served as the face of H&M’s holiday campaign which raised $3 million for UNHCR and supported the education of refugee children.
Alek has honoured the work and staff of UNHCR by attending multiple events, including the 2016 Arab American Institute Gala where she presented the Khalil Gibran Award to our Deputy High Commissioner, Kelly Clements, who accepted on behalf of UNHCR and the 2015 German Sustainability Awards where she presented an Honorary Fellowship to then High Commissioner, Antonio Guterres. Alek also helped launch the Sustainable Development Goals at the 2015 Social Good Summit in New York.
Alek has spoken passionately about her work with UNHCR in numerous publications across many territories, including The Guardian, Marie Claire and NPR.