This is the transcript of a Seeking Peace podcast episode featuring Aweng Ade-Chuol.
Melanne Verveer From Georgetown University, this is Seeking Peace. I’m Melanne Verveer, and this is Aweng Ade-Chuol.
Aweng Ade-Chuol I was raised by a soldier and my father was in the army ever since I could remember, since I was born. His whole life was spent on the battlefield. And until his last few years of life, I never really sat down and asked, like “How do you feel?” you know, like, and requested to really go into his mind and where his wellbeing was at.
Melanne Verveer Aweng Ade-Chuol was born in a Kenyan refugee camp. As a child she immigrated with her family to Australia, where she was scouted by a modeling agency. Today, at age 22, she is a world-famous model who advocates for mental health and equality – especially for refugee girls.
We reached her at her home in London to speak with her about her memories as a refugee and the importance of mental health care for girls who have lived in conflict zones as she did. She also shares highlights from her modeling career, including her experience in Beyonce’s new film, Black is King.
Melanne Verveer So Aweng, it’s so lovely to have you with us for this conversation. You were born in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya after your parents fled the Sudanese civil war. You left the camp when you were about seven. But do you have any recollections of life in the camp?
Aweng Ade-Chuol Yeah, I actually do. I’m known for my good memory in my family. I remember everything. I remember the place we lived in. I remember the setup of the camp. I remember the trees. I remember the wells. I remember the animals. Like I remember everything. And I’m currently practicing sketching and painting because I actually want to be able to visualize everything that I know and I can see in my head. And I want to put it to paper on a canvas. So I’m actually working on, like, being able to show people the life that I lived painted by me, in a way.
Melanne Verveer So you had your early years in the camp and then you moved to Australia, I understand. Your dad, of course, stayed behind to fight on the South Sudan battlefield. But when you moved to Australia, was it a brand new experience and you left those memories behind? Or how was the next stage of your life, so to speak?
Aweng Ade-Chuol I feel like leaving from Kenya at seven, we really didn’t have a perspective of where we were going. Because in our language, we really don’t — like countries don’t have names per say, like we just say [word in Dinka / Nuer language] which means the other side, or the other part of the world. We never really identify where. So the whole time we really didn’t think we were going to Australia. We thought we’d gone to America. So we had, ironically, had prepared for winter season. So we arrived around this time in 2006. And it was obviously starting to become winter in the United States, but it was going into summer in Australia. So we were prepared for an American landing, but we ended up in Australia. And that was first off, getting off the plane. And we’re in coats like winter coats. And that was just a shock itself. And then the environment and the place like it was just a whole whirlpool. Like I was crying at the airport because in our language, the translation of train is actually “onion.” And I was really confused as to why we’re going to an onion and why is it moving so fast. So I had a lot of, like, personal shocks. It was very hard for me to, like, accustom myself to this new place in this new world. It took me a while. It took me a long time to get used to just everything. I refused to eat. I refused to speak. I was basically on strike because I’m just like “I don’t understand where I’m at.” And no one ever explained it. They just were like, this is better for your future. And that’s just it. Nothing else was really explained.
But I, you know, put my big girl shoes on, learned the language, tried to accustom myself to the new culture and everything. But it was really hard, like it was really hard.
Melanne Verveer Well, you clearly did put your big girl shoes on and I know that you had a passion for higher education, which has clearly stayed with you as well. But in order to fulfill your aspirations, you worked really hard. Several jobs, saving, saving, saving, in order to be able to go to college one day. I understand you were actually working at McDonald’s when you were scouted for a modeling job. And of course, we know you for many things. But certainly your modeling career has become really extraordinary. So how did all of that happen and then how have you been able to balance your… what now is a very successful modeling career with your passion for higher education?
Aweng Ade-Chuol I’ve always wanted to be an actress. That’s the one thing that I’ve always wanted to do. Ever since I learned English, I started watching films, I started watching TV shows, I started studying the acting world entertainment industry specifically. So I was doing auditions, at like 15, 13, 14, like just little cute auditions. We never thought I’d get anywhere, honestly. But I was at the same time trying to still have a foot in the acting industry and a foot in like just life, really. Working and personal life and everything. So I was… I had a lot on my plate. I would say I was working probably four jobs [at] one time. And then also doing high school and obviously with high school you have the final exams to get into college and everything so I was in a very odd, busy place and I was working at McDonald’s and then someone came up and was like: “I would love for you to join my modeling agency.” And I was like, “I’m really busy, really busy right now, but I’ll give it a shot.” So I went back home. A week later, I emailed, went in for headshots and then ended up in Paris. And that was just it.
MelanneVerveer So you are passionate about your new work. You are passionate about higher education. Much of that has clearly stayed with you. But I know another area that you are quite, feel very strongly about is mental health support for refugees – and girls in particular. Why is this a cause that you feel so deeply about?
Aweng Ade-Chuol For me, I just feel like mental health is so important in every aspect. Everybody, everyday people, no matter who you are, should be doing therapy. I feel like being able to release what’s on your mind to a non-biased person who’s not in any way attached to your life. It kind of gives you room to explore the other perspective without being gaslighted, without feeling as if you’re a burden. And I just feel like if, as a kid, if I had that at the camp, if I had people to speak to outside of my immediate family that I saw every single day, every hour of the day, it would have made me understand the complexity of where I’m at and what’s going on in the world. Really it was just like there was never someone sitting down and explaining, like, yes, your feelings are valid. There was no validation to my confusion with where I was at in life, you know? And I just feel like refugees and young girls and everybody, really, deserve to have someone that has an experience with the world and with the outside world to give them validation for their existence like… What’s happening in your life right now, it’s not and only one person thing. It happens to many people, and here are steps to take to kind of like handle or deal with it, you know, mental health-wise, I would say.
Melanne Verveer Well, I think it’s so laudable that you remembered so well those adjustments you had to make when you got to Australia. And now much of that understanding and those experiences permeate your relating that to other refugees, particularly girls. And this is not an issue we often think about when we talk about the plight of refugees – the mental health support. I know that you’re involved in organizations like War Child and Children in Conflict. Why is that so continually important for you?
Aweng Ade-Chuol Their work is mainly refugees and the mental health of refugees, and giving refugees space and things they need – the necessities, really. But their main main goal is the mental health wellbeing of refugees. And obviously, I was raised by a soldier – my father was in the army ever since I could remember. Since I was born, he’s always – his whole life was spent on the battlefield. And until his last few years of life, I never really sat down and asked, like, “How do you feel?” You know, like, somebody that had to fight since the age of 13, 12, you know, in a battle that he probably wouldn’t understand, couldn’t even conceptualize, is like no one has ever really sat down and asked him, like, how “Well, how are you doing? How is your mental health?” No one had ever asked him that. And me being 16, curious as a cat, basically sat my father down and requested to really go into his mind and where his wellbeing was at. And I realized, there is turmoil with war. There is turmoil with having to choose between your family and the country that you, you know, will die for. So it kinda opened my eyes a bit more to be conscious of the mental state of not one — soldiers only; two — families of soldiers, mothers and wives of soldiers, to really just… Things happen at war that have never been spoken about, that never get spoken about. And I just wanted to open the dialog with him before he passed away. And I did. And that kinda left me in a space of content, like at least I mean, I didn’t get to give him a therapist in this lifetime, but I did allow the room for me to help any other child soldiers in the future.
Melanne Verveer You know this so well. But the number of refugees has doubled over the past decade. We are at historic numbers and just contemplating that, you know, one can imagine how stressed so many are and particularly those girls in situations that you can relate to from your own life and the needs that they have in terms of their ability to cope and understand what’s happening to them and to be healthy mentally as well as physically.
I know that you’re also a proud member of the LGBT community. You have married your partner. And you clearly are aware of challenges and discrimination facing the community worldwide. What can be done better to promote equality?
Aweng Ade-Chuol When it comes to that, in a perfect world, we’d all just accept each other and move along. But we don’t live in a even close-to-perfect world right now. A lot of terrible things have happened to the LGBT community and I just feel like personally, I’ve been very much confused, angry and sad. I just feel like I’ve been going through the like five steps of grieving, really. Because you want to believe that we’ve grown as a society. We’re at a place where your sexuality, your gender, your pronouns shouldn’t be an issue anymore, but it is. So what do you do about that? My biggest plan would be let’s just accept each other. Let’s recognize that there are faults when it comes to the acceptance of LGBTs and especially the lives of LGBT, you know. And with that, the first step is to know that there needs to be a conversation.
Melanne Verveer Well, I think that is the bottom line. It’s all about how we treat each other and respect each other and the humanity of every person. I know it would be truly of interest to many of our listeners to know about your being in Beyonce’s film, Black is King. And you were in the film with many other prominent Black women creatives, including Naomi Campbell. What was this experience like?
Aweng Ade-Chuol This experience really opened my eyes to how many things I can achieve in this lifetime. I literally had to sit back after the shoot – it really reminded me that the sky’s the limit. Really. And it just reminded me that there are people that believe in the vision and the bigger picture that I have for myself. And to be in the same room as those iconic legends, you know, it really just reminded me that “Whatever it is Aweng, keep at it.” It reminded me that you can come from literally nothing to being in rooms that you never believed you’d ever be in. It was amazing. It was beautiful to be in a room full of love… it just kinda made me put my dreams into perspective and really just pushed me more. And that was a dream come true.
Melanne Verveer We started this conversation talking about the fact that your family had to flee the civil war in Sudan. And I’ve heard that part of your plans for the future might be getting into politics one day in South Sudan. What are some of your hopes for South Sudan and what role might you want to play there one day?
Aweng Ade-Chuol I was studying politics – international relations – and my first year of law school. But I have many plans for the future. Let’s just say that I’m a big dreamer and I blueprint everything and I just, like I said, the world is your oyster and you must take it as you want. You know, I’ve never been to South Sudan. And that was kind of quote-unquote stolen from me, I would say. I never got to see what home really is, because last time my mother was there, she was fifteen, maybe? She was pregnant with me. [She] ended up in Kenya, from Kenya to Australia. It’s just like: I hear about it, I eat the food, I speak the language. But somehow I’ve never been in a space that I love so very much. And it’s just for me, getting there is the first step, getting me to go back home is my first step.
Melanne Verveer Well, I think it’s just so heartwarming to care about that deep feeling inside of you about home as you call it, and the possibility that you might make a contribution there one day. Has COVID affected you in other ways? Has it affected your ability to to work in the ways that you are accustomed?
Aweng Ade-Chuol I’ve still been working, during COVID. That’s the.. that was the tricky part for me. You know, I always try to do something with my time. Unless I’m sleeping, I’m really doing something with whatever hour, whatever second I have. And that’s just the person I am. But with COVID it’s been really I mean, at the beginning of it, even in April, I had like a huge mental health breakdown and shaved off my head, I went into a psych ward, I… like it was just a mess, really. But coming out of that, I was like, “You know what? There’s so many more things to life than stressing out because the world just seems to have stopped.” So I ended up having to take a break, just having taken two months off and just really sit down and just sit in bed for two months. And it was… it was interesting. You learn a lot about yourself when you are stuck inside for seven months and when you come out better. I feel like as soon as quarantine was over and I could travel again regularly, I was back to business, bigger business and bigger plans. I just felt like this year really opened my eyes to the fact that there’s so many dreams to accomplish. And I want to retire at twenty-five year old so I have three years and two months to get to it, you know… So it’s just like… I just really want to come out and really re-put my big old shoes on and that’s just it, really.
Melanne Verveer Well it sounds like you really have traversed this difficult time in a good way and I think there’s a very powerful message in what you have conveyed, which is to really take every moment, use every moment, maximize those moments and really get to a better place, always. Thank you so much, Aweng it, it has been wonderful to talk to you, to hear about your lessons – lessons you can certainly share with others and have shared now with them. And I wish you well.
Aweng Ade-Chuol Thank you.
Melanne Verveer Aweng turned 22 years old this year and she’s planning to retire from the modeling world by 25, graduating from law school and starting some new projects back in South Sudan. You can follow the work of Aweng @awengchuol on Instagram.
Today’s interview was produced by Laura Ubaté. If you liked what you heard, please share it far and wide. You can find all of our episodes on your favorite listening app or at seekingpeacepodcast.com.
In our next episode, we will speak with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege. A surgeon and gynecologist, Dr. Mukwege has spent over twenty years treating women survivors of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He also supports their reintegration into the community and their quest for justice.
DENIS MUKWEGE When we talk about reparations, we have to come to understand that we have to go beyond material compensation, beyond giving a few banknotes or donating material goods to women. That’s just the small step. But the big step is to implement reparations that ensure that these atrocities perpetrated against women can no longer happen again – so that they aren’t repeated against the children that will be born from these women.
That’s next time, on Seeking Peace.
Melanne Verveer The second season of Seeking Peace is a production of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and Adonde Media, in collaboration with Our Secure Future.
I’m your host, Melanne Verveer. Thank you for listening.