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

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents -

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.

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