It is important to me that people understand me for where I came from. From my origins in Greater Akobo, South Sudan near the border with Ethiopia, through my tribulations as a former child soldier and political refugee, to my transformation following my resettlement to the United States at the young age of 15.
On 20 June 2015, I was appointed as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador for East & Horn of Africa. This is the region where my motherland, South Sudan, is situated.
It pains me to see my country--and indeed my continent, Africa--continually plagued by wars that brutally scar children in their wake, and that similar destructive forces are wreaking havoc on families across the globe. It pains me that untold numbers of innocent people continue to die mostly at the hands of fellow citizens, and that those who survive are doomed to a largely unpredictable existence, buffeted by forces that they do not control.
I feel the pain because I was a refugee as a young boy. I experienced the trauma and upheaval of war and separation from my family. Becoming a refugee meant losing everything that was familiar. I was catapulted into turbulence where death was the only constant. Death stared me in the face so many times. Miraculously I survived. Many did not.
Today, large groups of people in South Sudan are going through unbearable torment. On 9 July 2015, as we marked the third anniversary of our nation's Independence, over two million citizens huddled for safety in squalid conditions in United Nations bases and various sites in the country, or fled into exile in neighboring countries.
Thousands of youth and children have been drawn into the fighting in South Sudan, often forcibly recruited by fighting forces, amid disturbing reports about the abduction and sexual abuse of women and girls, and of people being burnt alive. I've heard heartbreaking first-hand accounts of some of the experiences of those who fled.
Chatting with refugee youth of different nationalities in Kakuma camp, I experience mixed feelings. Disheartenment that there are not enough opportunities for them to self-actualize, and sheer hopefulness about their belief in themselves and their aspirations to become professionals in all fields of work. [UNHCR/Dominic Nahr, June 2015]
I am not a refugee today, not in legal terms. However, I consider myself to be a refugee in the sense that in order to visit members of my family I must go to refugee camps in Kenya or Ethiopia, or to internal displacement sites in South Sudan.
These are some of the reasons why the role of Goodwill Ambassador is so important to me. I speak for the same cause I went through and continue to go through because of the situation in my country. In this role, I am using my story and the support from those who lend me an ear to help spread awareness about the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Sharing my story is cathartic. It helps me to rise above painful memories and contemplate how those experiences can be utilized to create good. It took many years for me to dare face the demons of my childhood. It meant reliving memories of war, commotion, famine and of seeing many of my friends and family members die.
As UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador I have elected to focus on the areas of Youth and Education.
Peace School in Kakuma refugee camp has 8,000 children enrolled. They learn in shifts, and still there is not enough room for the children of school age in the camp. The refugee schools I've visited packed with eager kids who aspire to become professionals in all fields. But opportunities are limited. [UNHCR/Dominic Nahr, June 2015]
Up to 90% of refugees in any settlement tend to be women and children. Behind the staggering statistics are vulnerable children who have been exposed to abhorrent forms of violence. Women bear an inordinate burden of displacement as the main caregivers of the young, the elderly and infirm. Believe me, I’ve been there and I know.
I believe that failure to address displaced children’s specific needs in a deliberate manner is synonymous with condemning them to a lifetime of uncertainty particularly in terms of human security. Proliferating the vulnerabilities of millions of displaced people would not augur well for stability on the African continent, or the globe for that matter.
I see myself as an "invisible bridge" between the many worlds that I belong to—my birthplace, my nations, my continents, and the multiple spaces that I occupy that bind me to the rest of humanity everywhere in the world.
Chatting up a shy little girl in Kakuma refugee camp. My life's experience gave me the gift of adaptability. I am as comfortable in a refugee camp as I am on the streets of New York where I live, and on the catwalks and movie sets of my profession. [UNHCR/Teresa Ongaro, June 2015]
I am indebted to all people in my life who educated me from my earliest days and to those who helped me in the many places I’ve lived to remain steady and grow as a person, ultimately becoming who I am today.
I am grateful for the transformation that resettlement to the United States allowed me to experience. It is difficult to imagine what I might have become if I had not had the opportunity to discover and realize my God-given possibilities.
Reflecting on my story, it is evident that the opportunities I was given allowed me to become what I am: an actor and a fashion model able to speak to world audiences in languages other than my mother tongue. I went to the United States as a refugee. I worked hard and here I am, a tax paying citizen now endeavoring to give back to the refugee cause.
Given a chance, refugee kids excel. They are not powerless; they don't need pity. They can be citizens of any country; respectfully and constructively contributing to humanity’s goals.