I know how it feels to go hungry. When I was 7 years old, my family and I became trapped in our own home, huddled together amid the bullets and bombs of the civil war that raged around us in Southern Sudan. To leave home meant the risk of rape, or kidnapping, or death. We did have to step outside sometimes, to use the toilet in our backyard, but we crawled there, low to the ground, to avoid gunfire. One night, my mother turned the latch in the front door to make sure we were safely locked inside; a gunman in the yard thought it was the click of a rifle and began shooting like crazy into the night. My parents, my eight siblings, and I survived on food our mother had grown in the yard: vegetables, grains, peanuts. We shared what little we had with the neighbors—those who hadn’t disappeared. It’s an awful feeling, being hungry.
When I was 14, I became a refugee, fleeing to London with one of my sisters; our mother would come two long years later. There, I entered a whole new world when a talent scout spotted me at a street fair and told me I should model. “What?” I laughed. “You’re taking the mick out of me.” She wasn’t. Suddenly I was posing for photographers and facing a new kind of terror—high heels and runways. I remember at one rather avant-garde show, I had to wear clothes stained with fake blood and pretend to fight with another model on the catwalk while wearing towering heels. I just tried not to fall, to get to the end of the runway and back while on my feet. In this world, I found, many people were hungry too, but for different reasons. They wanted their bodies to look a certain way, whether their bodies were meant to or not. They chose not to eat.
Today, I live in the U.S., where restaurants serve huge portions on even huger platters, and people are tempted to eat too much. Many live to eat, instead of the other way around. In restaurants in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I always ask for a doggie bag, to bring the leftovers home. My ex-boyfriend suggested more than once that I cut this out, as he found it embarrassing. (Perhaps that’s why he is no longer my boyfriend.) I told him, “What’s embarrassing is that I should have so much more than others.” Take, for instance, the Horn of Africa—the cluster of countries that neighbor my native Sudan. Nearly a million refugees have fled the famine in Somalia, seeking help from camps in Kenya and surrounding countries. These people have less than nothing; mothers don’t have enough breast milk to nurse their children.
Recently I decided to start talking to kids in schools around my neighborhood about the famine—a small local step to get young people thinking globally. As an advocate for the United Nations’ refugee agency, which provides aid to people seeking asylum, I thought, maybe I could share my perspective and help bridge the gap between these different worlds.
What I found was heartening. The kids listened. They questioned. They asked what they could do. Now I’m going to start talking to schoolkids around the world, through Skype. We all have different backgrounds, different relationships with each other, and with the food we eat. But there’s one thing we all share: We eat to nurture ourselves, to feel stronger. We eat to live.
As told to Abigail Pesta.