A s she stands in front of the blue backdrop, striking poses with each click of the camera, moving to the beat of the music pumping in the background, it’s hard to imagine that for the first 10 years of her life, Nykhor Paul grew up with no reference to the life she now leads. As she introduces herself to me, her smile and her eyes hint at something powerful beneath her composed demeanour. This tall South Sudanese model has a story and, slowly but surely, I start to uncover the tale of the hard-working woman, humanitarian and mentor beneath the model poise. Nykhor may be ruling the international runways now, walking for Balenciaga and closing for John Galliano, but this life is worlds away from where she comes from. Born in Akobo in South Sudan, Nykhor grew up while the second South Sudanese civil war was raging, fuelled (like the first, in 1962) by religious disputes and inter-tribal violence. In 1995, she and her family, members of the Nuer tribe, moved to Pinyudo refugee camp in Ethiopia.
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Nykhor vividly remembers the details: the overcrowding, the scarcity of food and the lack of communication with the world beyond the camps. In 1998 Nykhor’s world changed forever. She was sent to live in America with her aunt and young cousin along with her uncle, who had arranged their departure through the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), a programme that helps house and shelter refugees. They settled in Nebraska, along with many other South Sudanese refugees. The move was tough on her: relocating to a new country, being separated from her parents, and being unable to speak the language. And America was nothing like Nykhor could have imagined. ‘The culture was very dierent – I’m a village girl, literally from the jungle, I didn’t have shoes, didn’t see TV, never saw a photograph, didn’t have a toilet, I lived in a hut house. We were freaked out by everything. Until then I had only slept on the floor. [Americans] showed us lots of things – how to drive, how to operate a stove, what kind of food we were going to eat… They introduced us little by little to Western culture.’
After two years in her uncle’s home, she spent the rest of her adolescence in foster homes. She is reluctant to go into detail about that time – its drawbacks and diculties. Instead she talks about how she participated in sport, making a life for herself outside of the homes – volleyball and basketball being the obvious favourites, thanks to her height. She also took ESL (English second language) courses to master the new medium. Her teachers at the ESL classes pushed her to enter modelling contests and pageants. ‘I’ve always been a tall kid, I don’t know how to be short!’ she laughs. But it was only after her first year at Doane College in Nebraska that she decided to take up modelling full time, as studying and working to support herself and her family was no longer a practical option. ‘I saw the window of opportunity and knew I had to make it work.
I liked it because I saw that there was plenty that you could do with modelling. Whether or not you’re a supermodel, you have the opportunity to develop your voice and use modelling as a platform. And you realise you can change so many things if you use it the right way.’ As her modelling career took o in America, Nykhor saw the opportunity to use fashion as a means to benefit her people back in South Sudan. She started her campaign, We are Nilotic – people of the Nile River, which incorporates many different tribes along its 6 700km length – as war broke out again in South Sudan in 2013. ‘I saw that there were many models from South Sudan who were refugees like myself. Some had been separated from their families. Others had lost their families. I wanted to bring these girls from the 64 tribes of South Sudan together in order to shed light and tell the world about the war.’ After recruiting 10 girls, Nykhor decided the best way they could share their stories was through art, film and fashion. ‘I arranged an exhibition in April 2014 at the Tribeca film festival in New York. There were at least 15 South Sudanese models, film-makers and actors there.
I wanted to start o with the best-known South Sudanese people, as they already had a strong following. They had people’s attention.’ Nykhor flew South Sudanese girls from Canada, Minnesota and Nebraska to document their stories. ‘My aim was to show that we are one people and that instead of fighting against dierent tribes we must look at each other and see that we are having the same experiences. In the West (America) no one cares if I’m from the Nuer or Dinka tribe. We need to form a union and a sisterhood, and show people in South Sudan that if we can become brothers and sisters outside, they can do it inside too.’ In August last year, Nykhor returned to see her family for the first time in 17 years. They still live in Pinyudo, which has become a more or less permanent home for thousands of refugees. There, she notes with concern and frustration, almost nothing has changed.
But she was joyfully reunited with her parents and, while there, filmed girls of all ages in the camp in an eort to highlight what improvements need to be made – and how she can help. ‘My dream is to set up ways of making the refugees self-sufficient,’ she says. ‘They need to learn how to help themselves. I want to teach the women about selfempowerment, because that’s the journey that I have been on. As the eldest daughter in my family, there was a fate that was set out for me: I would have had an arranged marriage and I would have continued living in the camp, but I changed my course and rewrote my story.’ And that she has certainly done.
Today, she’s a top model who is turning her career into a vocation; her initiative won her a Humanitarian award nomination at the Model Awards in 2014. She’s full of purpose, dedication and determination. What lies ahead? Having just given up her rental in Harlem, New York City, she is hoping to make South Africa her new home. Whether on the runways, airwaves or our televisions, one thing is certain: Nykhor is making her voice heard – and, yes, we are listening.