Supermodel Alek Wek visits refugee camp in South Sudan hometown to mark its independence

Welcome home! Supermodel Alek Wek pays emotional visit to refugee camp in her South Sudan hometown to mark its independence
Elle's first black cover star recalls being a teenage refugee during civil war

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UPDATED:

07:44 GMT, 24 July 2012

Her life now involves pacing the catwalks of London, New York, Paris and Milan, wearing couture clothes costing hundreds and thousands of pounds.

But South Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek has proved she is not going to forget her humble and often traumatic beginnings in a hurry.

The former North African refugee has made an emotional return to her homeland, her first since 2005, to mark the first anniversary of the country's independence.

And the trip brought back plenty of painful memories.

Homecoming: Supermodel Alek Wek hands out soap to refugees moved from the Jamam camp to Yusif Batil in South Sudan

Homecoming: Supermodel Alek Wek hands out soap to refugees moved from the Jamam camp to Yusif Batil in South Sudan

The 35-year-old beauty fled her hometown of Wau with her family as a teenager during the 1991 civil war between government forces and rebels.

The journey was a gruelling one in which the Weks foraged for food, used the sun to navigate, and were sometimes forced to spend whole months in villages and stretches of days shut inside huts when the warfare around them became too dangerous.

Alek Wek's beloved father died along the way, but she, her mother and her sister made it to London when she was 14, and there they finally sought asylum.

She was spotted by a modelling scout for Models 1 in an outdoor market in Crystal Palace in 1995.

In 1997, became the first black woman to appear on the cover of Elle magazine.

Remembering the past: Alex Wek has revealed that returning to her South Sudan hometown brought back a lot of painful memories of when she fled the war-torn country with her family as a teenager

Remembering the past: Alex Wek has revealed that returning to her South Sudan hometown brought back a lot of painful memories of when she fled the war-torn country with her family as a teenager

Visiting the 35,000-strong refugee camp of Yusuf Batil in Upper Nile state, Wek said it was difficult listening to the harrowing stories of people who reminded her of herself as a young girl.

Speaking to the Guardian, she said: 'It choked me up because I remembered walking through the bush…and eating whatever we found, any my mom knowing what greens were poisonous and which ones were not.'

Wek, who is a member of the Dinka tribe
and part of the US committee for refugees' advisory council, visited
Sudan with the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

She said that the hardships she lived through will be impossible to forget: 'Having witnessed it first-hand, and at a very young age, even if I put it at the back of my mind, it is still there.

'I've heard stories like, “I'm going to die anyway, I might as well die, why should I even try” That really resonated, not knowing what tomorrow is.'

The model put her
strength of character down to her powerful, selfless mother, saying:
'Whenever I feel I am going through my own 'little' challenging moment, I
just think about my mom.'

Joyful anniversary: Alek Wek dances with the First Lady of South Sudan Mary Ayen Mayardit to celebrate one year of the country's independence

Joyful anniversary: Alek Wek dances with the First Lady of South Sudan Mary Ayen Mayardit to celebrate one year of the country's independence

Hopeful: Supermodel Alek Wek at a UN Refugee Agency returnee site in South Sudan with a baby

Hopeful: Supermodel Alek Wek at a UN Refugee Agency returnee site in South Sudan with a baby

Promising times: Alek Wek, standing at back, dances with children in a way station in South Sudan

Promising times: Alek Wek, standing at back, dances with children in a way station in South Sudan

Hats off to her: Model Alek Wek attends the fifth annual Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic in Jersey City this month

A colourful life: Alek Wek attends the Roberto Cavalli Autumn/Winter 2012/2013 fashion show in Milan in February

Today's face: Alek Wek now lives in the United States and has not visited her South Sudan home since 2005

All smiles: Supermodel Alek Wek wears a dazzling creation by Irish designer Philip Treacy in Paris in 2003

All smiles: Supermodel Alek Wek wears a dazzling creation by Irish designer Philip Treacy in Paris in 2003

A star is born: Alek Wek modelling Philip Treacy for Umbro in 2006

Bright star: South Sudanese model Alek Wek in Philip Treacy for Umbro in 2006

Standing tall: Alek Wek fled her homeland as a teenager, embarking on a journey that would eventually lead her to catwalks all over the world

Stunning: Model Alek Wek is photographed in New York in 2005, the year in which she last visited her Sudanese hometown

The sky's the limit: Alek Wek in a hat by Philip Treacy in 2006

A model story: Alek Wek was spotted by a modelling scout from Models 1 in an outdoor market in Crystal Palace in 1995, when she and her family had sought asylum in London