Editor’s Note: Alek Wek is a model, designer and a goodwill ambassador for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
I was 14 when I became a refugee.
As civil war tore through my village, I lost friends and neighbors. I could no longer go to school. And eventually, I couldn’t even leave the house.
When the danger became too great my family and I had to flee – leaving behind our home, almost all of our possessions and our entire way of life.
Never again would I roam the village with my schoolmates after lessons, snacking on mangoes, wandering out to check on my mother’s cows or running up the big hill nearby to gaze at the airplanes passing overhead.
Never again would my mother’s main worry in life be whether or not I would be back in time for supper. Never again would my family, all 11 of us, be together under one roof. That period of my life is scarred by deep, life-changing loss.
In the face of this upheaval, I held fast to something my father had told me. “You can lose almost everything,” he said, “but you can never lose your education.”
If, as a refugee, education was the one thing that could not be taken away from me, then I was going to immerse myself in learning. And that is exactly what I did.
The moment came when my mother saw the chance to send me and one of my sisters to London. I had mixed feelings about this – I was devastated to be separated from her, but I was relieved to finally reach safety. I had endured a great deal, I was still having nightmares and sudden noises terrified me – even the slamming of a door.
Education became my refuge. It gave me stability and security when everything else seemed to have fallen apart. I had always loved school but now, having missed several years, I saw it through new eyes – something not to be treated lightly, and certainly not to be taken for granted. Now it was not just about learning for the love of learning; now it was essential to finding my own way forward.
I remember well my first day of school in London. I was intimidated and afraid – I looked different from my fellow students, I couldn’t speak English and I got called a whole host of names. But I was grateful to be there, even so. And with my father’s words driving me on, I gave it everything I had.
Education was empowering. My confidence and self-esteem rose and at long last I could see a small light at the end of what had been a long and very dark tunnel. Education gave me not just the skills I needed to navigate what ended up being a very demanding career in fashion, but it also gave me hope and optimism. It gave me the space to explore how to be the best person I could be.
Every child deserves such an opportunity to be empowered – indeed, it is every child’s right. For millions of refugee children and adolescents, however, it does not exist. Overall, less than half of school-age refugee children attend school; those hoping for a secondary or tertiary education see their chances shrink with each passing year. The older a refugee gets, the more likely it is that access to the classroom will be denied.
There is a clear gap in opportunity for refugee and non-refugee children, and we must do everything in our power to close it. This means investing in classrooms and teachers for refugees. It means giving them access to appropriate material. It also means supporting girls so that they have the same opportunities as boys. The world has much to lose if it allows whole generations of refugees to grow up uneducated and alienated.
As a goodwill ambassador for UNHCR – the UN refugee agency – I have met many young refugees who yearned to get an education, just as I did. I have met children who walk three hours just to get to school. I know what learning means to them because I know what it meant to me.
Today, my father’s voice, still ringing in my ears, inspires me to advocate for access to education on behalf of all those who are left behind. It is my hope that we unite as a global community and prioritize education, that we see an increase in funding and access to national systems, that we see all refugee children enjoying their right to education and thereby finding dignity, passion and the bright futures they deserve.