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Interview

Meet Ger Duaney, Refugee Turned Actor and Model

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. Throughout this week, we're publishing their stories.

by Zach Sokol
15 May 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, continuing with today with Ger Duany's.

Born in 1978, Ger is one of the children known as the Lost Boys of Sudan's second civil war in the 1980s. He learned to fight before he could read or write, and memorised every part of an AK-47 machine gun before hitting puberty. After successfully fleeing to Ethiopia at the age of 14, he eventually made it to the United States where he developed a love for basketball. It led to a college scholarship, but during an off-year caused by injury, Ger ended up getting cast by chance in the David O. Russell film I Heart Huckabees. He became close with star Mark Wahlberg and the director, and the gig catapulted Ger into a successful modelling career.

In 2011, he coproduced and starred in a documentary,

Ger: To Be Separate

, detailing his return home for the first time in nearly 18 years, where he voted in the newly-independent nation of South Sudan and reunited with his mother. Ger spoke with us about how playing Division II basketball saved him in America, the massive paradigm shift that came with fleeing Sudan to working with Mark Wahlberg in Hollywood and why he barely spoke about his past while working in fashion.

Photo by Tarrice Love

VICE: Can you tell me about the timeline of when you left Sudan and became a Lost Boy? How long was it before you were in a refugee camp?
Ger Duaney: I was among the displaced children who escaped from Sudan in 1986. I walked hundreds of miles on bare feet from country to country to find a better life in the Horn of Africa. We ended up in the Ethiopian refugee camps in Itang, where I stayed for four years. And then war broke out in Ethiopia, which displaced refugees from Itang back to Sudan. This is why we were roaming around in 1991. As a result, all the boys were forced into the military. People think I had a choice but I didn’t if I wanted to survive.

It was rainy season in 1992 in Sudan. I remember it like yesterday. That year I became an active child soldier. At 14, I was considered a grown man, I earned a gun and then everything changed. My life would never be the same.

How big is your family?
I have a very big family. My dad had several wives, nine to be exact and I have 63 siblings. I’m not sure if my father included me in that count, but that’s what he told me. They’re all in South Sudan. And those who survived the current civil war were displaced to Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.

Do you remember life in Sudan that wasn’t torn by war and violence?
Yes, South Sudan is simply beautiful land, with beautiful people with humility of spirit and big smiles. It’s full of thriving nature. If I brought you to my country, I’d take you to the Nile and bring you on an adventure that you will never forget. It’s a green and very flat country and our land is like my skin colour. Ethiopia is very high in elevation, and when it rains there it trickles down into South Sudan, and the minerals in the rain fertilise our soil. We can grow anything there. The hunger that haunts the land isn’t because we lack fertile soil or agriculture skills. We lack only motivated leaders and organisers. I'm afraid our current conflict will lead us toward famine because war depletes every life source, it seems.

Even throughout the civil war, many memories haven't been tainted. We sang, we danced, we went fishing and hunting. I looked after my family cattle. The civil war reached all corners of Sudan, but it didn’t stop our life from functioning. We created happiness and normalcy in war. 

How did you get into modelling and acting in Hollywood movies? 
My life in the United States mimics my life in Sudan. I never lived in one place for a very long period of time. This is the first time in my life I’ve stayed in one place – Manhattan, for the past eight years.

When I landed in the United States in 1994, I ended up in Des Moines, Iowa and Sioux Falls, South Dakota with other Lost Boys of Sudan. Later, I learned that I had family in Bloomington, Indiana who had lived there since 1984; my uncle, Dr. Wal Duany, was working as a professor at the University of Indiana. I went to meet him and joined his family and kids who were around my age. 

In Indiana, I picked up basketball – my cousin Duany Duany played basketball for Wisconsin and Kueth Duany was Syracuse’s team captain, and he won the national championship in 2003. That’s how my life really started. I became a kid all over again and my uncle was teaching and showing me how to live in this country. If I stayed in South Dakota, my life would have gone in a different direction – most of the kids there got into trouble with law, so basketball saved me! It was my therapy, my way of dealing with my post-traumatic stress disorder.

I dreamt of going to the NBA. It's still a vivid memory. I won a scholarship to play at a small college in Mattoon, Illinois and I started to get recognition as a junior college player and then I got another scholarship to attended LA Southwest College. I graduated and I tore my ACL and went back to Indiana for one summer to heal. I had to take time off from school, which resulted in me losing my opportunity to get a full scholarship. It was a nightmare, as that scholarship was my only way of funding my education. 

In the spring, I stayed at Georgetown with my cousin Nok Duany and trained at the Georgetown University gym. During my time there, the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut heard about me. They flew me out and gave me a full scholarship. At the end of my sophomore year, I was cast in the movie I Heart Huckabees. There was nationwide casting looking specifically for a Sudanese refugee who could play a role in the movie, so I stayed in Connecticut that summer and went to the audition. Next thing I knew, I was flown to Hollywood, and the following morning I was in rehearsals with Dustin Hoffman, Mark Wahlberg, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwatzman and all the rest.

Photo by Matthias Vriens McGrath

When I got there, it was totally different from the basketball environment. I came into this Hollywood world where everyone was so nice and supportive and full of compliments, so much hugging and kissing on cheeks. I bonded with David O. Russell and Mark Walhberg because we loved basketball. Mark and I would play after work every other day in his huge mansion with a beautiful gym. We became like brothers. And they didn’t consider me just another Lost Boy with a heart-wrenching story.

Over the three months of filming, I kept asking David when the filming would end so that I could leave California and go play basketball again at the University of Bridgeport. I had to get back to receive my scholarship again. By the end of September, it was too late for me to get back into school. Basketball was in my blood for ten years. I had been determined to go back to school to finish my Bachelor's degree in human services, but it was too late.

I took a year off using the money I saved from my summer working on the movie and then transitioned to New York City for more auditions and modeling gigs until school started again. I started modelling, and I meet many interesting people – some managers and agents were interested in my work because of I Heart Huckabees. From 2004 up to now, I’ve worked in high fashion runway and print. I’ve been doing it for just about nine years now. 

Did you consider yourself part of the fashion world?
I never really felt like I was part of the fashion world. It's a tough circle. I eventually became comfortable in the field and worked during fashion week, doing runway shows and collaborating with some amazing designers. I've had so many opportunities, and for that I'm forever grateful and humbled, but my mission right now is much greater than fashion.

When I’m around fashion, my purpose is being around people that have an understanding about humanity, like pairing fashion with clean water projects, fashion that cares, fashion that can make a difference in peoples’ lives. I'm glad I've built great relationships with designers in the fashion industry and they recognise my growth and reach out to me about combining fashion with purpose. I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone in fashion, but life is not solely about the glitz and the glamour. I’m glad I understand that balance.

Clothes don’t change me. Clothes don’t make anybody, the way I look at it. I will always be South Sudanese, but more importantly I’ll always be Ger Duany.

Image by Jeff P. Elstone for INAISCE

Did you ever bring a basketball to a fashion shoot?
[Laughs] Early in my career, I'd show up at castings with a basketball. They'd just look at me as some exotic African guy. They didn't know that side of me. It was separate. In Indiana, basketball is a religion! Then one time on a trip to Milan for fashion week, me and a couple other models decided to play ball. I started dunking over their heads and then they realised I was a force to be reckoned with.

Did your peers know about your life as a refugee and Lost Boy?
Honestly, they didn’t know about my past. It’s not something I talked about; it’s something I tucked in.

When I lived in Sudan, I never looked at myself in the mirror. I didn’t have one. I never got compliments about my appearance – that kind of thing wasn’t part of the culture. Then in America, I’d have people say, "You’re a beautiful man!” and I was surprised. I had to learn this language about beauty!

For me, to get the same treatment as any other kid in high school and in college was important, and then in acting and in the modeling world I wanted the same and was grateful to have that. It didn’t come easy. Then when my life story came out, someone would ask, 'Where's your family?' And I'd say I haven't seen them in 18 years and then my story started coming out.

I’m a different person today from the one I was in my college basketball days, even compared to my days in fashion. So when I went home in 2011 to see my family, it was interesting to see how different I was from them. I’m different in a way where I’m influenced by this part of the world and it was education that let me escape my life as a refugee and as a Lost Boy of Sudan. I hunt for my own identity. But when I go back, I’m still the same guy and I interact with my people in the same way. They can’t believe I was gone for 20 years and I still remain the same.

Tell me about your documentary, GER: To Be Separate.
My director Wanuri Kahui and I went to Sudan in 2010, where we searched for my mum and other relatives. I had been gone for so long and most of my family and relatives thought I perished along the way.

I was desperately searching for my mother; we were separated for 18 years. We could see the struggle had taken a physical and emotional toll on the Southern Sudanese. Wanuri insisted that she would capture it: “Don’t think about the money, just go find your family and I’ll follow you.” Then, I knew that I had a friend.

How did you choose the name of the documentary?
My name is Ger. The name Ger means when all things fall apart, but when we finally tracked down my mother, Kahui asked her, "What does Ger mean?" and she replied, “To be separate.”

I was told that your upcoming film with Reese Witherspoon relates to the plight of the Lost Boys.
The film is inspired by the true story of the Lost Boys. It’s a collection of all our stories put into one narrative by a wonderful writer, Margerate Nagle. If I ever wrote a book, it would complement a movie like The Good Lie because it’s like reliving my past time of trauma in a therapeutic, creative release. I had to dig deep in me and get that story out. Everyone says they have a movie in them, and I think this was my movie. I think this movie is good for my country, not just good for my personal career. We need a platform like this so that our stories can be seen and felt.

Are you optimistic about the future of South Sudan?
In 2010, when I returned to South Sudan, I was very optimistic. I was looking left to right and screaming freedom Oyee! I was excited and overwhelmed with joy. I couldn’t believe it was happening in my lifetime. We didn’t think that South Sudan would become independent, but it happened!

We are the most hopeful and optimistic people with strong faith. I believe this war will eventually settle down and it will make us come together and think about how to move into a newest chapter in the near future. I have to be optimistic because I want the best for my people. We can’t lose hope. That’s what our country stands for, for hope! We’ll get there.

For more on Ger Duany, visit his website.

Follow Zach Sokol on Twitter.