South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, gained its independence from Sudan in 2011 after a decades-long civil war. Its citizens had little time to enjoy their freedom; since December 2013, political in-fighting has embroiled the country in violence and plunged it into crisis, with many thousands dead and millions displaced. Hunger and illness are widespread and homes, schools, and entire villages have been destroyed.
Over the years, many have fled the region to emigrate abroad. As a result, the South Sudanese diaspora continues to grow. This community includes four tremendously inspiring women—Nykhor Paul, Atong Arjok, Mari Malek and Mari Agory—all of whom are working to improve the conditions in their beloved homeland. As successful models, they use their prominence in the fashion world as a global platform for activism.
“We are one people. We must learn to coexist as one and reap the benefits of independence.” — Nykhor Paul
These four women dream of peace, a united South Sudan, a place where children are safe, healthy and have access to education. Their goals are both large and small, conceptual and practical. All four women seek to raise awareness in the West while also delivering much-needed help to South Sudan. They cite the women in their lives— mothers, grandmothers, sisters and daughters—as inspiration. They see themselves in the children of South Sudan and in the refugees, for they too were once in their place.
Nykhor Paul started the We Are Nilotic campaign to emphasize solidarity among the sixty-four distinct tribes across the nation, all of whom are Nilotic—people of the Nile Valley. As fighting intensified between the two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, she traversed the streets of New York to provoke dialogue, her face painted to represent the two tribes. For Paul, the unifying narrative of We Are Nilotic is symbolized by a tree—a willow whose long sweeping branches represent the tribal diversity of South Sudan coming together as one.
Paul was recently named a spokesperson by the International Rescue Committee. Having spent much of her childhood as a refugee, the new role enables her to bring her message back to the refugee camps, including the one in which her family still resides. It’s a strong platform from which to advocate for displaced persons from South Sudan—and around the world.
Paul notes that most people “do not know the beauty of South Sudan.” She is raising awareness both inside and outside the country as it strives for peace. “We are one people,” she says. “We must learn to coexist as one and reap the benefits of independence.”
Aton Arjok is focusing her humanitarian efforts on the ever-growing number of South Sudanese who have been forced to flee their homes and often their country. She is launching an initiative, Clothes for Change, using her expertise and connections in the fashion world to provide refugees with the clothing necessary for a region frequently devastated by heavy rains. After studying psychology and participating in a leadership program for South Sudanese youth, Arjok is now considering a future calling to help her people overcome the trauma of war.
Arjok has a profound love for her country, and laments the fact that its predominant image in the Western world is one of war and poverty. Yet she sees strength and hope amidst the horrors of war: “My people are resilient. They can always see the light in the midst of the darkness.”
Mari Malek founded Stand For Education, an organization dedicated to improving education for South Sudanese children and empowering young women. Together with fellow model Mari Agory, she is working on rebuilding schools in the war-torn country and plans to open a boarding school for girls. Her mission is urgent in a nation with high illiteracy rates and where many girls leave school prematurely. Malek’s work is highly personal, for she has a young daughter herself.
Malek, also known as DJ Stiletto, aims to use music to further spread her message and to bridge the gaps in understanding. Music, she says, “is a universal language.” Her passion to do this work comes inexorably and innately. “Being an activist is my mission,” says Malek. “It is why I am here. It is why I am from South Sudan.”
Mari Agory is partnering with Mari Malek as an ambassador for Stand for Education. She is raising awareness about the dire need for resources and forging collaborations with companies to provide school supplies and books. Agory also hopes to use her education in public health to advocate for a better health care system in South Sudan. She has long had a passion to work with children in developing nations, and says that the fashion industry has opened her eyes to ways she can support her country.
The fashion world can often seem a rarefied place, yet Agory is resolute about giving back to South Sudan and using her influence to effect change. “I try to remind myself to never forget where I came from,” she says. “No matter how much I accomplish I try to remember the people that are still there.”