Supermodel Alek Wek’s emotional homecoming

Updated 11:17 AM EDT, Wed September 12, 2012

Story highlights

South Sudanese supermodel traveled home for the first anniversary of the country's independence

She says the new country should focus on infrastructure development and education

UNHCR report says a South Sudanese girl is three times more likely to die in childbirth than reach 8th grade

Editor’s Note: Alek Wek is a Sudanese-born supermodel. She was forced to leave the country because of civil war and went to Britain as a child refugee. She continues to campaign to draw attention to the ongoing suffering in her country.

(CNN) —  

South Sudan is in the news but not for the reasons that moved me to fly halfway around the world to the country were I was born. South Sudan, my country, has been criticized for not having done enough since its independence.

The naysayers seem to have forgotten that this is a country that was mired in civil war for decades and that only a little over a year ago broke free from the chains of the North.

Supermodel Alek Wek
Getty Images
Supermodel Alek Wek

Still it is fighting to negotiate a fair agreement for the oil on the dangerous and contentious border while generously hosting over 170,000 Sudanese refugees. Its population has bulged with hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese returning home.

Imagine the U.S. in the first year of its independence.

Read more: End the suffering in the Sudans

In July, I traveled home with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to commemorate the one-year anniversary of independence. I hadn’t been to South Sudan since the peace agreement in 2005.

I never thought I would see a free South Sudan. It was overwhelming. The story that is not being told is that in spite of all the challenges – the country is teeming with hope.

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For instance, my nephew, who was born in England, moved to South Sudan to start a telecommunications firm. He gave up the comforts of London because he believes in South Sudan’s future. He is just one of thousands with a vision for their country that only an appetite inspired by decades of bloodshed can foster.

During my trip I met dozens of people from the First Lady of the country to refugees who had returned from Khartoum, most were brimming with ideas about how to restart their lives and contribute to their new home. South Sudanese people are rich like the soul of their nation. What they lack in training they make up in sheer willpower.

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I visited a woman UNHCR helped settle in a village near Juba. Naomi, 83, is taking care of her grandchildren. All three of her sons were killed during the civil war. Her story moved me to tears. She should be relaxing and enjoying the fruits of her labor but instead is still taking care of babies.

Naomi reminded me of my own grandmother who endured the civil wars and those who lost someone to violence. Yet in spite of all this pain, Naomi exuded hope.

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At the Independence Day ceremony President Kir rallied the people reminding them that they had won their freedom but the battle was not over. Now they must build their nation. What South Sudan needs to do is invest in education.

Over 50% of the country is young people. I read in a report that a South Sudanese girl is three times more likely to die in childbirth than reach eighth grade.

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My father instilled in me a fierce commitment to education and that is why at the TEDx Juba conference I shared my vision for the future of South Sudan – infrastructure development and education.

As a member of the South Sudanese diaspora I hope to help continue his legacy. UNHCR, which has been helping thousands of South Sudanese who have returned rebuild their lives, is compromised by the crisis on the border.

This month’s rains have worsened an already dire situation for the refugees. Unfortunately, aid organizations can only do so much. They need help to work with both the returning population and the refugees at the same time.

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This is why I am hope to continue to partner with UNHCR to foster education opportunities in the town where I grew up and help contribute to a successful future for my country.

You can help me help South Sudan by going to

Charity Tooze contributed to this report.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alek Wek.