“There is turmoil with having to choose between your family and the country that you will die for.”
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.
Listen to the full interview with Aweng Ade-Chuol on the “Seeking Peace” podcast, hosted by Ambassador Melanne Verveer, or read the interview below:
Melanne Verveer: 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. 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.
Verveer: You had your early years in the camp and then you moved to Australia. Your dad stayed behind to fight on the South Sudan battlefield.
Ade-Chuol: I feel like leaving from Kenya at [age] seven, we really didn’t have a perspective of where we were going. The whole time we really didn’t think we were going to Australia. We thought we’d gone to America. We had, ironically, prepared for the winter season…we were in winter coats.
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.
It was very hard for me to accustom myself to this new place in this new world. It took me a while. 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.” No one ever explained it. They just were like, this is better for your future. Nothing else was really explained.
But I put my big girl shoes on, learned the language, tried to accustom myself to the new culture and everything. But it was really hard, it was really hard.
Verveer: I know you feel very strongly about mental health support for refugees—and girls in particular. Why is this a cause that you feel so deeply about?
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. 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. 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.
Ade-Chuol: Their work is mainly refugees and the mental health of refugees, and giving refugees space and things they need—the necessities, really. 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?” Somebody that had to fight since the age of 13 or 12, in a battle that he probably wouldn’t understand, couldn’t even conceptualize, no one has 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 well-being 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 will die for.
Verveer: 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?
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 an even close-to-perfect world right now. We’re at a place where your sexuality, your gender, your pronouns shouldn’t be an issue anymore, but it is. My biggest plan would be let’s just accept each other. And with that, the first step is to know that there needs to be a conversation.
Verveer: Can you tell us how your successful modeling career started?
Ade-Chuol: I’ve always wanted to be an actress. Ever since I learned English, I started watching films and TV shows. I started studying the acting world and entertainment industry. I was doing auditions, at like 15, 13, 14, just little cute auditions … 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. 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.
Verveer: I know it would be of interest to many of our listeners to know about your being in Beyonce’s film, Black is King. You were in the film with many other prominent Black women creatives, including Naomi Campbell. What was this experience like?
Ade-Chuol: This experience really opened my eyes to how many things I can achieve in this lifetime. 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.”
Verveer: 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.
Ade-Chuol: Thank you.
This interview excerpt was prepared by India Ellis.