This month she posed for our Saint Laurent lookbook, but when Nykhor Paul isn’t illuminating photoshoots and international catwalks, the refugee-turned-model-turned-activist is fighting to raise awareness of the widespread violence and famine in her native country. Paul grew up in South Sudan before becoming a refugee in Ethiopia and eventually emigrating to the United States thanks to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Unfortunately, she had to leave her family behind in Africa, traveling on her own to Texas and then Nebraska to live with foster parents. Though she was dismissive of casting agents who frequently scouted her, she eventually decided to give modeling a shot.

Nykhor Paul in Saint Laurent photographed by Stas Komarovski

As her career blossomed, civil war continued to ravage her home country. Desperate to make a difference, Paul launched We Are Nilotic, a charity initiative devoted to bringing relief to those affected by violence and promoting peace among the feuding tribes of the region. Here, she tells us firsthand about her inspiring journey.

The Window: You’ve been through so much change in your life, moving from Sudan to Texas to Nebraska to Chicago and eventually to New York. What keeps you grounded?
Nykhor Paul:
My family and my faith keep me grounded, plus the hope to one day return to where I was born.

How did you end up in the fashion industry?
When I was 15 years old, I was discovered in a mall in Nebraska walking with my foster mom, and ever since then, I pursued modeling on my own.

Was fashion ever something you were ever interested in before modeling? Are you interested in it now?
I didn’t know about fashion when I was growing up. Since I was 9 years old, my father had plans for me to get married to a man that my parents had arranged. After I was scouted and started modeling, I discovered that it could be my escape to see the world and find my freedom and voice, while educating myself towards independence. While modeling, I realized there weren’t many girls like me in the media, so I decided to pursue it more and add my face to the mix in hopes of diversifying beauty standards. I want to be a voice for girls back in the villages and refugee camps in Africa, communicating a positive narrative about beauty from our perspective. After few years in the industry, I developed a love for art, as well as for the many inspirational things you can do in fashion to transform people’s lives once given the opportunity to express their inner beauty. And now I love red lipstick!

How has being a refugee shaped your approach to your career here in the States?
Every day that I am in this country as a refugee and immigrant motivates me to work hard and educate myself in hope to give back to my people. I’ve always considered myself blessed to be chosen out of all the millions of women and children dying and starving. I got a chance to live a different life than what was expected of an African village girl.

Tell us about starting We Are Nilotic, your foundation. What does the name mean and what is the cause?
We Are Nilotic means people of the Nile River. I created the initiative to raise awareness for the refugees of South Sudan by using my platform in the industry. I want my story to bring peace between Sudan’s 64 tribes through art and cultural exchanges. We need media and films to tell stories from our perspectives. My goal is education and to focus on women and youth voices highlighting our perspective from the civil war, all to move toward peace and healing.

What have you accomplished with the foundation so far? What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
I launched a campaign of exhibitions and T-shirts that has received worldwide support from the international communities. I’ve collaborated with the fashion industry, the Dutch government, the IRC, and many more. In the future, I hope to raise money for education, build centers for art and cultural exchange in Nebraska and Ethiopia, and work toward peace and healing.

What would people be surprised to know about your native Sudan? Is there anything you miss about it?
My native country of Sudan has many tribes with a wide range of rich culture, and roots as deep as the Nubian kingdom and Nilotic of the Nile. I miss the morning dew, walking with my grandfather to the Nile to wash and get breakfast from the fish nets, fetching the honey, and collecting the mangos. My memories of swimming in the Nile are the most sacred. There’s nothing like the festivals and the drummers with dancers all decorated in their native attires, each expressing their love and joy for their culture. I miss everything about growing up in Sudan without the war—the glimpses of peace and stability we had was enough to instill a fire deep within our souls to return to the land of milk and honey by the Nile.

Have you found support for your experience and cause within the fashion community?
The fashion community has backed me up since the beginning and encourages me to blur the lines between beauty and peace.