Meet Mari Malek, Refugee Turned Supermodel

We talked to several South Sudanese-American artists about how they went from refugee camps in Africa to runway shows and Kanye West videos in Manhattan.

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May 13 2014, 6:00am

Photo from Mike Mellia’s portrait series Our Side of the Story: South Sudan

The April issue of VICE includes just one article in its 130 pages. The magazine's sole story, Saving South Sudan, by Robert Young Pelton, is a gonzo-style dive into the strife of the world’s newest nation, one that has faced perpetual war “with some sporadic days off” since 1955. In April, we received an invitation to a gallery exhibition by New York–based photographer Mike Mellia, whose project, Our Side of The Story: South Sudan, is a series of portraits of South Sudanese refugees turned artists. Subjects included supermodels who've walked for the likes of Louis Vuitton and appeared in Kanye West videos, an actor starring in an upcoming Reese Witherspoon movie and a poet studying at Columbia University. Almost everyone in the series still has family in South Sudan, or a neighbouring refugee camp and many of the subjects' families don't know the extent of their current artistic lives.

We got in touch with several of the subjects of Our Side of The Story in hopes of giving them a platform to talk about their almost unbelievable voyages from Sudan to America, from refugee camps to runway shows and top-tier universities. VICE will be sharing one of their stories every day this week, starting with Mari "DJ Stiletto" Malek.

Mari Malek was born in Wau, South Sudan, into a family of roughly 20 children. Her father was a minister of finance in the government, and her mother was a nurse. As the war got worse, her mother turned the house into an open-door sanctuary for displaced people whose homes had been razed in the fighting. When the violence became more concentrated in the area, her mother swiftly and stealthily brought Mari and two sisters to a refugee camp in Egypt in hopes of getting them out of the continent.

She eventually emigrated to Newark, New Jersey, living in a low-income housing complex filled with drugs, violence, prostitutes and other problems that made the transition feel "even scarier than our home in Sudan". After locating family in San Diego, Malek went to school in California and had a child at age 20. She eventually was asked to model and, on a whim, moved to New York to pursue fashion. She has since modelled for Lanvin, Vogue and has appeared in the videos for Kanye West’s “Power” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”, and now she DJs at Manhattan mega-club Lavo under the name "DJ Stiletto". She spoke with us about working in a world as far removed from her childhood as humanly possible, why the impetus of the current civil war comes down to male egos, and how her nonprofit organisation, Stand for Education, is working on boosting learning opportunities in South Sudan, which she believes is the only way to end the war. 

VICE: Where in South Sudan were you born? 
Mari Malek: I was born in Wau, South Sudan, during the Second Civil War. I come from an educated and working family. My family was also very large. I have about 20 sisters and brothers. Five of us belonged to my mum and dad, and the rest were my half sisters and brothers. My dad had four wives, and my mum was his third wife, the one who took care of all his children. 

At that time my mother was a nurse, and my father was working in the government as the minister of finance and was always travelling back and forth from South Sudan to the North. The South was becoming too dangerous for us to live in, so we moved to Khartoum (the capital of Sudan when it was still one country).

Since I grew up in a well-off family, I was going to school, had plenty of food, and was a happy child because I had my father, my mother, my family and a home. Things got worse, and my family lost everything. I remember when I was like five years old a bunch of northern Arab soldiers raided our home and took everything from us and took our father away. A few weeks later my father returned home hurt and jobless. I was confused and did not know what was going on at the time (our parents did not express to us exactly what was going on). Little did I know, that was the last time that our family would be together.

My mother took care of us, as well as a bunch of displaced people who kept on coming to our home, escaping from the South because villages were being burned and people were being murdered. Our home became like a hospital filled with hurt and sick men, women, and children.

Four years later, my mother had made plans for us to escape Sudan. My father never wanted us to leave, so she took us secretly. She took my two sisters and me by surprise from our father, and off to Egypt we went to live as refugees waiting to be sponsored into the USA. My mother wanted to make sure we were protected and had a chance at living our lives in better circumstances. 

Mari with her mother, Awalith Niahl Diing Mac

What is something about life in refugee camps that the average American wouldn’t know?
Living in Egypt, my mother had to start her life all over. We had to start our lives all over. Mum got a few jobs as a maid so that she could support us. She was working all the time. I had to take care of my younger sisters and become a mother to them at the age of 9, because my mother was busy making sure we could attend school, eat and have a decent life.

Every morning when I woke up and got my sisters ready for school, I was praying for protection. When we walked the streets of Egypt, the Egyptians made fun of us, threw things at us and spit on us. We took a 45-minute train to school, and from school and every single day we were mistreated and discriminated against. We had to fight!  We were all kids mostly under 12, fighting for our rights every day.

Can you describe a moment from your childhood in South Sudan that you hold dear? 
In Wau (the village I was born in), we had a lot of mango trees. I remember when my siblings and I would go pick mangoes from our backyard. We challenged one another about who could climb the mango trees the highest and pick out the best-tasting mangoes. After we picked the mangoes we washed them and cut them and sat under the shaded tree and had a mango picnic. I so miss that! Every time I think of that moment, it's like I just time-traveled. I am taken right back to that exact moment. I can hear the breeze, feel the shade and taste the mangoes. I miss my home!

When did you move to America?
In 1997, we were finally sponsored by the Catholic Charities to come to the USA. Our sponsor lived in New Jersey. He was an Asian man. He picked us up from the Catholic Charities office and dropped us off to what was then our new home.

Our apartment was in Newark, New Jersey. It was a scary place, especially at that time. It seemed even scarier than our home in Sudan. The building we were put in was filled with drugs, violence, gunshots, prostitutes and rats. We were very lonely and terrified. We spoke no English and knew no one. It was freezing-cold – the coldest we had ever experienced. We were kids, and at this time I was about 14 or 15 years old, and we had an innocent outlook on things. We really didn’t pay attention to all the bad things around us. We were just happy to have our mum and one another.

My mother, on the other hand, did not like our new living circumstances, and she obviously knew better than we did. As usual, she was already planning on moving forward to a different environment for our own safety. With a little help from an amazing person we met, we were able to locate some of our relatives in San Diego, California, and moved to connect with them. Our new life began there. We connected with our long-lost relatives, went to school and started settling in the United States of America.

How did you end up modelling and DJing in New York? 
After leaving Sudan we basically lived the rest of our lives poor. I got my first job when I was 16 years old, to help my mother out. After all, she was a single mother, and none of the education and work she had completed in the past mattered here in America.

We found ourselves constantly having to start over all the time. It was challenging. I grew up fast. I worked, finished high school, went to college, met someone I fell in love with and got pregnant at the age of 20. I gave birth to my beautiful angel, Malayka Malek. I ended up being a single mum, like my mother. I struggled between going to school, having a job and being a single mum all at the same time. Although I was blessed with my baby girl, I felt empty and like a robot.

I finally decided to take a risk and follow my heart. I told mom that I was going to go check out NYC for some modeling opportunities and see where it could lead me. Every single day of my life since I came to America, I was getting approached to model, but I had no idea what that was, so I was a bit scared.

Now I am involved in the entertainment business. I started off as a model here in NYC, which led me into discovering that I can DJ, and now I play live under the name “DJ Stiletto", often at clubs like Lavo, in Manhattan. I am the first nationally and internationally known South Sudanese DJ, and I am looking to expand that into music production. I work with clients in the fashion and music industry, such Mercedes Benz Fashion Week, Rolls-Royce, Kenneth Cole, Indochine, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Lacoste L!VE and a Lanvin Paris ad campaign shot by the legendary photographer Steven Meisel. I am now becoming more established as a DJ, so I do not have to work a day job like I used to. 

Lanvin ad by Steven Miesel 

Can you tell me anything you’ve heard or witnessed in South Sudan that illustrates how people are being hurt and need help? 
Well, since we became independent on July 9, 2011, Sudan is no longer just Sudan. The country is now divided into two different parts, Sudan and ROSS (which is the Republic Of South Sudan). The American media have been focusing a lot on the broad statistics, which I personally feel takes away the connection of this being a humanity issue and not just a South Sudanese issue. I want people to start really looking at us as a part of them. As one! As our country is not just a country somewhere out there, but an actual part of this planet.

What do you think is the source or root of all this violence in South Sudan? 
There are several sources for the violence happening in my country, but I think a major cause of all this violence in the region is a lack of education. Most of the country is illiterate. Only about 20 percent of the people are able to read and write, and only 1 percent of those who can read are women. Mind you, 64 percent of the country consist of women, who are not even allowed to speak or have any sort of a voice. Does that make any sense to you?

Like Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” How can we make any major political decisions when most of the people in the country cannot read or write? This is exactly why my nonprofit, Stand for Education, focuses on providing access to education. I want to shed light on this issue and bring opportunities to the children and women of South Sudan so that they can learn. I want to teach the younger generation that it doesn’t matter what tribe you are from.

The other root of the problem is “men with egos”. Our country is the youngest country in the world. Our leaders are inexperienced and running it. I feel like they are running it with their testosterone and egos. The current crisis in South Sudan has been exposed to the media and to the blind as a “tribal war,” when really it is a power struggle between two men who want power for themselves. These men are supposed to be our leaders and our protectors.

Mari with her daughter, Malayka Malek

What upcoming projects are you working on?
Currently I am working on my nonprofit, Stand for Education, where we focus on providing access to education in South Sudan and empowering women/girls to discover their power and use it in the highest form possible. We need to protect children, nourish them, teach them and give them structure so that they can have a bright future. A child in South Sudan has few choices as far as learning. These choices are under trees, in an overcrowded class with a teacher who has a sixth-grade-level education, or they have to go out of the country (and that is if their family can afford it, which is less likely to happen).

South Sudan currently has one of the lowest globally ranked levels of gender equality in the world. Women and girls are supposed to just get married, have children and take care of a man. Most girls in South Sudan are used as a source of income. They are being sold. A girl can be used and married off at the age of 12 to an old rich man so that the family can get a dowry (which comes in a form of cattle or cash). They barely have a chance to attend school or live their childhood. If a girl gets a chance to go to school, she will most likely drop out due to early marriage and early pregnancy. That is why I am dedicating each and every chance I get to helping these children and women. 

Are you optimistic about the future of Sudan? What will it take to end the violence? 
I am very optimistic about the future of South Sudan. I believe in us. I believe we can rise above this. Sometimes it takes for things to fall apart so things can come back together. At some point we are all going to have to step back and look beyond our egos to fix this never-ending violence and negativity. 

Please visit Mari’s charity, Stand for Education, at www.stand4education.org. The organisation aims to give less fortunate people access to educational opportunities and strives to help young women in particular. 

Find out more about Mike Mellia’s South Sudan–focused portrait series, Our Side of the Story, on his website.

Follow Zach Sokol on Twitter.

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