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Their Side of the South Sudan Story: Nyakong Thok, Refugee Turned Model

'The moment I came out from my mother’s womb, all I saw and felt was pain'

by Zach Sokol
16 May 2014, 6:00am

All photos courtesy of Nyakong Thok.

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, continuing with Nyakong Thok.

Nyakong was not actually a subject in Mellia’s portrait series, but she came to the exhibition opening and gave a poignant speech in front of nearly a hundred people, with an emphasis on religion saving her from drowning in the memories of her past trauma. She models professionally and is self-described as "one of the best models in Minnesota," where she used to live after emigrating to the States from South Sudan.

We sent her several interview questions, and she replied with this short but intense biography. It has been edited for clarity, but remains largely intact.

My name is Nyakong Thok and I was born in Sudan in 1982. The moment I came out from my mother’s womb, all I saw and felt was pain and struggle growing up in one of the biggest countries in Africa at that time, which had been at war for more than 50 years.

The war was horrible. At a young age, I saw dead bodies all over at the time we were leaving from our homeland. My parents and my siblings had no option and escaped to Ethiopia and lived in a refugee camp. Being the eldest girl at the age of eight, I had a lot of responsibilities. One of them was to be a mother to my siblings and make sure they were OK. I felt like an adult by this time, and I hardly enjoyed my childhood. Looking back, my memory goes to a specific moment when I was at my homeland in the upper Nile. I was pricking the ground with a stick, experiencing suicidal feelings that overwhelmed me.

In 1984, we moved to a refugee camp in Ethiopia called Pinyedu. The life in the refugee camp was miserable. I felt trapped and had a total loss of hope in my life. There was absolutely nothing to do and life was at a standstill at the time. The worst tragedy that I witnessed while escaping Sudan with my family was the sight of dead bodies lying everywhere and bullets flying. I remember running like helter-skelter but luckily we stayed together with our family.

I saw one man running with a baby on his neck. He was being shot at, and the baby flew off his neck and hit the ground. During the war, people were running for their lives and had no time to rescue one another. The bloodshed was immense. Vultures were always on the watch to feed on the dead bodies. After a few years, Ethiopia itself began fighting and we had to move back to Sudan. Tragedy hit once again, and there was a huge famine that passed along in 1992, killing a lot of people.

I owe a lot to my mother who has always been there for us all our lives. My father was not involved much in our lives. He married another woman, which made it so difficult for my mother who had to take care of us. I witnessed and experienced a lot of domestic violence and I made it a point to protect my mother. This inspired a lot of hate towards me from my father’s family. It was not a good feeling.

I remember when my mother left us in Sudan to start an entrepreneurial business in a camp at Ethiopia. As the eldest daughter, I had to make sure our siblings were able to eat. At the age of ten, my brother went out, trying to catch fish. I was trying to carry water for people so that they could pay me. We went days without food for a long time. If we ate, it was good luck.

I used to pray so much and ask God to help us. My two little brothers were taken to live with my stepmother, who beat them all the time. They made a plan to escape, and succeeded. I knew God was with us because kids got abducted all the time, but my brothers remained safe, despite being three and four. They told me that they jumped in a van that was coming to the upper Nile and we were so surprised by their story.

I also remember when I was almost poisoned by my stepmother, but luckily my friend advised me not to eat the food she offered. When I refused, she got mad and started cursing at me. This resulted in a fight, and she slapped my brothers due to anger.

I never understood what this life was all about, and I was sinking in a hole of depression and suffering. All I wanted was to take my life. I had a dream of my mother on a night those feelings were especially intense, and the next day my mother came home. We went back to the refugee camp at Pinyedu and through God’s favor, my uncle from Iowa requested that we be brought into the States.

The happiest day of my life was when I left Sudan, even though it was sad to leave my family behind. I was thankful that my bother Tut was with me. We came to the United States in 1998. Life in the United States was a challenge, but I was thankful I was not in war, even if I was still at war with my mind. I was betrothed to a Sudanese man in America, and we had two kids. He was violent and never cared about me. He was being abusive all the time, and he left me in pain, but I had more pain, real pain, when my son of ten months passed away. I felt like the world was over when he died, but through God’s grace I kept on moving. I gave birth to three more children and my husband moved back to Sudan when our youngest girl, Eva, was only two weeks old. My oldest son Chol and daughters Chilling and Eva were all I had.

I kept pursuing my education and working odd jobs while supporting the kids myself. I went on and followed my dream to become a model and I became one of the best models in the state of Minnesota where I lived at the time. I felt a lot of hatred and pain towards Minnesota, and I decided to leave for Dallas, Texas at a time my brother was there. Driving to Dallas was amazing and I knew God had a purpose for me there. I swerved on the road and had a major accident, but luckily God was with me one more time and I came out unharmed despite my car getting totaled. My brother came and picked me up and I resettled in Dallas where I met my brother’s friends who helped us for a little bit while we were looking for a place to stay until I got a job. I believe that it is through religion and grace that I am able to live without the fear and suffering I once felt. I thank God for his loving kindness for it is better than my own life.

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