“REFUGEES WANT WHAT EVERYONE WANTS – A NORMAL LIFE”
Up-and-coming model Ajok Madel was born in a Kenyan refugee camp after her family fled the devastating civil war in South Sudan. Now happily settled in Australia, she tells her story
Ajok Madel on overcoming adversity and star status.
“MY FIRST MEMORY IS OF MY AUNTY PICKING ME UP, carrying me as she ran. I had no idea where we were going or what was happening. It was the middle of the night and it all happened so fast.
We ran and ran through the darkness, with hundreds of others. I was too small to run alone, so my aunty carried me. I could hear gunshots, but it was impossible to tell how far away they were. Later, I heard that people had been killed. We were the lucky ones – we made it out of our camp, to a random home where strangers took us in. When I look back, I realise that my life as a refugee has only been possible because of these acts of kindness.
I was born in a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya, in 1999. My family is from South Sudan but I’ve never been there. My family left when my mum was pregnant with me; my father was one of the two million people killed in the [Second] Sudanese Civil War, one of the longest civil wars on record. A further four million people were displaced, including me and my family.
I’ve often tried to imagine what it must have been like for my mother – she was 32 years old, with two children to look after and pregnant with a third, fleeing a country torn apart by war. She had nobody to keep her safe as she made her way to Kenya. And when she finally got to the camp, it was her job to make us a shelter, to stretch out our food supplies every month, to keep us protected from the hundreds of other people who lived there. I have so much admiration for her; her strength kept us alive and kept us going.
The ambush that happened when I was five, the one where my aunty carried me through the night, was the worst one we experienced. To this day, I don’t know who was coming for us, or why. We lived in a refugee camp, we were no threat to anyone. But even being in a camp run by the UN isn’t a guarantee of protection. There were sexual assaults in the camp and children were sometimes stolen, never to be seen again.
We came to Australia when I was nine. I was terrified of flying to Perth as I’d heard made-up stories about planes falling out of the sky. But as soon as we touched down in Australia, I remember thinking, ‘I’ll never hear a gunshot again.’
In a lot of ways, Australia felt so strange to me. I remember thinking that the school year felt so long – I had to spend a whole year at school? In the refugee camp, we would start school, and do a few months, but then we’d have to stop because of fighting. Even small things like having a fridge or a proper working toilet in our house, or my own bedroom, was so amazing to me. I would walk around our home just touching things, trying to believe they were really ours.
When I was 14 I got a job at Mcdonald’s. Customers kept coming in, saying, ‘You should be a model! Why are you working here?’ I’d never really thought about it before, but people said it so often that eventually I thought, ‘Why not?’ One day a woman from an agency came in and handed me her card. It took me a few weeks to work up the courage, but I called her and a few days later, I signed with Vivien’s, one of the biggest agencies in Australia.
Modelling has opened up a world for me I didn’t know existed. I’ve moved to Sydney and while it’s hard to be away from my family, it’s also this fun adventure I never saw myself having. Someday I’d like to study business, but for now I’m happy modelling. I want to go overseas, book covers, show people that you can start from nothing and work hard to get to the top.
If I could tell people one thing about refugees, it’s that we don’t have an agenda beyond our own safety. All we want is to be safe and happy and healthy, that’s it. It’s hard to understand how difficult life can be if you’ve always had access to running water and basic hygiene, or if you’ve never had to leave your home in the middle of the night. Every refugee leaves their home for a reason. We want what everyone wants – a normal life.