In the new cover feature for Vogue Arabia‘s April 2020 issue, the publication profiles South Sudanese model Eman Deng who is taking the modelling industry by storm.
When she was nine, her country split in two. Her family also shattered, with her father leaving his wife and children. Sectarian violence erupted in Sudan, forcing her mother to flee with her kids to neighboring Uganda. Now, at 19, Eman Deng is flipping that traumatic history on its head. After being scouted on Instagram, the up-and-coming model is fast conquering the runways, walking for Thom Browne and Rick Owens and working with Chalayan and Halpern. Eman Deng opens up about being a refugee, finding her feet in the industry – and her wishes of returning to her homeland one day.
What was it like growing up in Sudan?
It was nice as we were living as a family, all together. I’m Christian, but Khartoum [where I lived] is a Muslim city and all of my childhood friends were Muslim; it was good to learn about a religion different to my own. We Christians go to church on Sundays and Muslims go to the mosque on Fridays but God and Allah are the same. At school, before classes, we would say prayers from the Quran; I still know them. I love the fact that I was exposed to this amazing religion.
What are your strongest memories of Sudan?
I have good memories of visiting my grandparents’ house and spending time with my cousins. When Sudan and South Sudan separated [in 2011], a lot of people were forced to move – the Muslims and Christians each got their own side. I was nine years old and had to move to a different country, learn another language… It gave me a lot of trauma. My dad left after the country separated so I was raised by a single mother, who decided we should move to Uganda where there are better opportunities. This made us refugees seeking a proper education and a place to stay.
How were you discovered? Were you surprised?
I was scouted on Instagram by my mother agency in Africa, Isis. I was excited and afraid at the same time. The exciting part was that I was going to travel, appear in magazines, and meet the international models that I’ve always looked up to. Getting a visa wasn’t so easy – I almost quit – but being signed is still one of the best things to occur in my life. It hasn’t been an easy journey so far and I’m still struggling to make a name for myself in the industry. Castings scare me but they have given me the opportunity to meet photographers and people I never thought I would. I believe the most important thing is to love yourself, be true to who you are, and love what you do.
What did your family think of you becoming a model?
They were ready to support me because they believed that I would make it in the industry. When I told them that an agency would like to sign me but that I was scared and afraid, they said, “No, go ahead and do it if that is your dream.” They said that if I believe in myself, I can do it and they will support me. Everyone was so excited, especially my grandparents, my mom, and my aunt. Without my family standing by me I couldn’t have had this career. When I walk in fashion shows I send them pictures and they tell me how proud they are. That gives me even more energy to work hard and to become who I am.
How are you experiencing this new reality of working as a model?
It is interesting and hard, too, at times. I had to cut my hair and go bald in order to stand out and fit into the modeling community. I cried and cried – I couldn’t go bald! My agency said once I cut my hair, I was going to get noticed by international agencies. I thought I looked weird with this new look. But within weeks of the pictures coming out, I got international agencies, including PRM in London.
How do you find life working away from home? Do you find it hard to settle in?
I’ve never lived apart from my sisters – the love and connection we have is strong. Working away from home is definitely one of the hardest things to deal with. During my first season in the UK and then Paris, people had difficulty understanding my English and I often had to repeat myself but I’m in a place that I used to dream about so I’ll continue doing what I’m doing.
Read the full interview on en.vogue.me