After Escaping Sudan, This Woman Became a Fashion Model and Inspiring Advocate
Nyakim Gatwech’s life was a rollercoaster of ups and downs. From war in South Sudan to refugee camps in Ethiopia, she ended up in Minnesota hoping for a better life. But in this new land, she faced slews of taunts because of her incredibly unique look. Things were so bad that she would cry herself to sleep at night. She even began to consider taking drastic measures to fit in. That was until she went through a very strange but life-changing experience with a particular person. Read on to find out how one of her most painful moments served as the catalyst that launched Naykim’s modeling career and completely transformed her life. The story will blow your mind!
1. Footsteps in Africa
Nyakim Gatwech’s story began before she was even born. During the Second Sudanese Civil War, millions of innocent people were forced to flee the country in search of asylum in neighboring African countries. With soldiers gunning down whole villages at a time, there was absolutely no safety. Among the countless number of refugees fleeing from the harsh realities of war was the Gatwech family.
The matriarch of the family knew there was no future in South Sudan and that she had to flee with her children as soon as possible. She trudged along for days with the sun beating on her back and her children in tow until they reached Ethiopia. What’s more, she was also pregnant at the time.
2. Refuge in the Refugee Camps
Without a husband or male relative to support her, Nyakim Gatwech’s mother searched for the right refugee camp by foot until they finally settled into one in Ethiopia. It was there that Nyakim’s mother gave birth to her beautiful daughter.
Sadly, two of Nyakim’s siblings didn’t make it through the upheaval. Her sister passed away on the way to Ethiopia, while her brother succumbed to complications from kidney failure. Luckily for the rest of the Gatwech family, Ethiopia wasn’t the final stop. Little did they know what a remarkable journey lay ahead.
Nyakim Gatwech’s mother decided to leave Ethiopia when the U.N. left the refugee camp. A lot of her family members were leaving for America, but as a result of racism and ruthless bullying, the Ethiopian government wouldn’t allow her to leave.
After facing bigotry and disappointment, the family made their way down to Kenya to another refugee camp where they lived until Nyakim, pictured above as a young child, turned 14 years old. It was in Kenya where Nyakim developed a love for the world of fashion and beauty, binge watching America’s Next Top Model with Tyra Banks as her idol and browsing through fashion magazines. It was a world that seemed so far removed from her own reality.
4. The Rebels
Even in the refugee camps, Nyakim and her family encountered lots of danger and suffering, as rebels would enter the camp to try and rob the refugees. Nyakim recalls her mother shoving her children into one room to lie on top of them to protect them from harm.
Nyakim’s brother still bears a scar as living proof from when a rebel cut him with a long knife while they were all in the room. Their mother just screamed and cried until the neighbors came and scared off the rebels. This was the final straw; all that Nyakim’s mother wanted was for them to start a new life in America: the land of freedom.
5. Making The Big Move
After years of applying to get into America, the Gatwech family’s status was finally approved in April, 2007. They were more than thrilled to finally reunite with their cousins, nieces, and nephews who had already made their way to safety.
The thought of not having to sleep in tents, nor having to worry where the next meal came from sounded like heaven. They would finally have clean drinking water, clean hospitals, top medical care, and a good education. However, Nyakim would come to learn that America was both heaven and hell for her in ways she could have never imagined. The language barrier and her extremely dark skin would suddenly become a problem.
6. Navigating a New Life
In 2007, Nyakim arrived with her family in Buffalo, New York. It was definitely a safe haven from all the undue suffering they endured in Africa, but moving to a new, foreign place came with its own set of challenges.
Nyakim came to learn very quickly that succeeding in America required a lot of hard work. Years later she told Teen Vogue: “America is a really great country if you make it.” She’d also recall very sad and difficult memories of prejudice and loneliness while navigating life in her new home.
7. Color Blind
Nyakim never knew what discrimination was until she moved to America. She knew she was darker than most of her family members and other people, but never did she receive criticism or nasty remarks about her dark skin in Sudan, Ethiopia, or Kenya.
The worst part of it all was that people of all ethnicities and color would stare, but Nyakim said she faced the most abuse from none other than black Americans. “I didn’t even think colorism had a word or existed until recently. I didn’t feel it back home, but I really feel it here,” she told Huffington Post.
8. The Prejudice of It All
When Nyakim Gatwech enrolled in middle school in Buffalo, she was still struggling with her English, but she understood the taunts and abuse. “You’re black as hell. Take a shower,” the kids would say. When teachers asked her questions, the students would giggle and say, “We can’t see her. She’s not here. Smile so we can see you, Nyakim.”
The teacher would scold the children and send them to the principal’s office, but the damage was done because she knew the whole class was thinking what one of the students was saying. She was so upset she would even cry herself to sleep at night. Nyakim had internalized what others thought of her super dark pigmentation.
9. The “Other”
Nyakim was distraught from all the teasing and it really pained her to think that the people around her didn’t accept her. Every once in a while, people would tell her that she should model, but she couldn’t grasp that concept. Her self image as so low.
“These people don’t accept me,” she lamented. “These kids think I’m ugly. I don’t see myself on social media, or TV, or in the magazines. I don’t think I’m meant to be a model.” Nyakim pushed that idea into a box at the back of her mind and threw away the key. She didn’t know it at the time, but she’d need to unlock that idea sooner than she thought.
10. Painful Moments
Nyakim didn’t believe she was beautiful; in fact she thought she was worthless. She recalled going to sit with a group of students at the cafeteria and them immediately getting up and leaving. The rejection felt like a knife in her chest.
Two random men on the street even made a bet about whether Nyakim was wearing leggings or if her skin was really that dark. All this abuse just led to another painful moment in the Sudanese girl’s life. It would take some time for her to embrace her unique beauty.
11. Make-Up for the Win
Nyakim Gatwech could no longer look at herself in the mirror because she felt so low. She wasn’t accustomed to makeup because no one wore it around her while she was growing up. However, even before she arrived in America, she was in love with makeup.
“I’d look on TV and think, ‘Oh, her eye shadow is beautiful,’ or, ‘I love her highlight.’ But I couldn’t find things that matched my skin tone. I didn’t care — I loved makeup so much, I’d put it on regardless. I’d buy a base three or four shades lighter than my skin and look ridiculous,” Nyakim told Cosmopolitan. People made fun of her at school because her neck looked darker than her face. When makeup didn’t work anymore, Nyakim wanted to resort to more drastic measures.
12. Skin Bleaching
Desperate times called for desperate measures, and while make up wasn’t part of her culture, skin bleaching sadly was. Nyakim seriously began to consider bleaching her skin to avoid the dirty looks and the insulting sneers. She wanted the guys to think she was beautiful and to notice her.
If skin lightening was her only option, then so be it, she thought. She was about to start the bleaching process and alter her entire appearance forever, but fortunately she had a rude awakening of sorts. It would turn out to be one of the most valuable moments of her life.
13. Bleaching Your Mind
Nyakim begged her sister to help bleach her skin. After all, it was a common practice among Sudanese women. Nyakim’s sister bleached her skin upon arriving in America at 18-years-old and for that reason had very strong feelings against the practice.
Her sister exclaimed, “You would not just be bleaching your skin, you would be bleaching your mind. I did it and I regret it. I’m not going to let my daughter do it or you — nobody.” The best advice she gave her younger sister was that “The most satisfying feeling is when you are comfortable in your own skin and when you accept your beautiful dark, dark melanin.” It would take some time for Nyakim to discover this for herself, but her sister certainly planted the seed.
14. Off to Minnesota
The Gatwech family eventually moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota because there was a bigger Sudanese community in the Midwest. Nyakim’s mother also wanted to be a preacher, and it was easier for her to do so over there. The bullying Nyakim encountered in Buffalo left deep-seated scars and unfortunately continued in Minnesota too.
She’d walk into grocery stores and people would would gawk and whisper, “Oh my God, she’s so black. Is that even normal?!” She’d also join sporting events at school like track and field to meet new people and they’d just say, “Are we going to be able to even see her when it’s her turn to pass the relay stick.” However, Minnesota was also the place where everything began to change for the better.
15. The Turning Point
It wasn’t until Nyakim Gatwech’s junior year in high school when a major turning point came about. Her sister always encouraged her to pursue modeling with her unique looks, but Nyakim believed you needed to be light-skinned and blonde to land a spot on the runway.
That was until she was offered to model her friend’s line of clothing at a fashion show at St. Cloud State University. Nyakim discovered that she was an absolute natural on the catwalk and felt so at home on the runway.
16. The Start of Something New
Suddenly, other people started noticing Nyakim’s beauty as well. People would stop her on the streets and in shops to tell her to pursue a career in modeling. Now that she believed it was something she could do, the world was her oyster. In the past she used to think “What’s modeling. Is that a job I can really apply for?”
The dark-skinned beauty began to build her modeling career. She moved to New York for two years and began working tirelessly to capture the perfect photos for her portfolio, in between her college classes. She wanted to show the world what she was made of.
17. Beauty Industry Hardships
When Nyakim moved to New York, she still faced discrimination, sometimes by make up artists, designers, and even other models. They didn’t have the vision to look out of the box, which would soon prove to be a big mistake.
Even in Minnesota, Nyakim didn’t quite fit the Western constructs of beauty, so it was hard to land gigs and shoots, but that made her even more determined to start a movement of self confidence, female empowerment, and the celebration of color. This in turn led to an event which completely rocked her world.
18. Love Yourself
It took time, but Nyakim was finally learning to love herself completely. She decided to fully pursue a modeling career and her family was supportive loving. Big changes were on the way for this girl that was once taunted for her looks.
Nyakim understood that she had to accept herself before others could come to love and accept her. She started to believe she was beautiful the way she already was, which only landed her more modeling contracts and photo shoots. Her new beliefs empowered her to see the world differently. Next, an interaction with a stranger would put all that to the test.
19. The Uber Taxi Ride
In March 2017, Nyakim Gatwech called an Uber to catch a ride to an interview in Minessota; a ride that would transport her back to her worst nightmares and open up the wounds of the past. Looking at the up-and-coming model, the taxi driver, who was also black, said, “Wow, you’re dark. If you were given $10,000, would you bleach your skin?”
Instead of retreating back to her old ways, Gatwech proudly laughed acknowledging her dark skin. “I’m like, ‘Yeah I know.’ I can tell when somebody has never seen a Sudanese person before, somebody as dark as me.” But her next response was even more priceless.
20. An Honest Response
After Nyakim laughed at the taxi driver’s silly remark, she wanted to genuinely know why he thought she needed to bleach her skin. He said it would just be easier for her to find a man. He even had the audacity to say that she’d find a job and get more opportunities if she was lighter.
That’s when she declared, “Even if being lighter would make my life easier, I’d rather take the hard road. Why would I ever bleach this beautiful melanin God blessed me with?” She couldn’t even respond because she was laughing so hard, so he asked her if that was a ‘no,’ to which she replied, “Hell to the f***ing no!”
21. Going Viral
Nyakim was so incredibly blown back by the Uber driver’s ignorance that she knew she had to share the story on social media. It really struck a chord with everything she had endured up until that moment in her life.
Her story about the ride with the taxi driver, whom she described as “the light-skinned black man,” resonated with thousands of followers and sympathizers and garnered a flurry of supportive and loving comments. Now 24, Nyakim Gatwech’s story was going viral.
22. Growing on the Gram
After Nyakim posted about her encounter with the uber driver, her Instagram following increased at an exponential rate, reaching about 347,000 followers. She told her fans that she was used to these kind of stupid questions about her skin and wasn’t actually surprised, but she had no idea so many people would be moved by her story.
Her outlook on life is what inspired people the most. Her confidence and self-love injected so much positivity into the world that it became really contagious, so much so, that her fans came up with a new nickname for Nyakim.
23. The Queen of Dark
Nyakim’s fans lovingly nicknamed her “The Queen of Dark” and “Melanin Goddess” and she embraced her new nicknames whenever she would post something new to her Instagram page and the ever-growing fan base. It was clear that she would no longer hide her dark skin, and that she thought it was truly gorgeous and different.
She encouraged women who look like her to love and embrace their beauty no matter the situation. “It takes time to love who you are. If you love yourself other people will see. It will shine through you and then they have the choice to accept you or walk away,” Nyakim told Cosmopolitan.
24. “Different Melanin”
After Nyakim Gatwech’s story went viral, she received a lot of her attention for her photo shoot series called “Different Melanin,” which depicted her posing with other models boasting their own different shades and tones of brown skin. She also posted a picture with her Sudanese friends several days later with her story of the Uber driver in the caption once again.
This post got even more attention and support than the first post. These reactions encouraged Nyakim to share her whole life story and the bullying she endured. She told her fans, “When I put a picture up I’m telling people that no matter what you say, I love who I am. I love my skin tone. I’m telling people that I am beautiful even though I look different than the majority of people in this world I live in.”
25. Professional Gigs
All the positive attention meant Nyakim landed lots of gigs, including shoots as a cover girl for local magazines and national campaigns for brands like Aldo, Calvin Klein, and Jigsaw. Her fierce, motivational posts seem to have attracted all the right attention.
She has become a woman little girls look up to because of how much she encourages self-love. “My skin is beautiful; it’s smooth, it’s glowy, and I stand out when I walk in a room. My skin right now is being used as a weapon to show the world different is beautiful. I’m using my skin color as a tool to inspire other people to love themselves and be OK with who they are,” Nyakim told Teen Vogue.
26. Don’t Photoshop Me
One of Nyakim’s pet peeves is when photographers Photoshop her skin tone to look either lighter or darker. “Can you just get my skin color the way it is? Is that too much to ask,” she exclaimed during her interview with Cosmopolitan. She strongly advocates that black isn’t a color of death, evil, or sadness and loves to be called the queen of darkness.
She’s proud of to part of the group of women who have and are changing the world, like Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Alek Wek, and Nykhor Paul. The latter two are also Sudanese. “We’re not just regular models who walk down the runway, go home, and call it a day. We’re inspiring people and opening doors for others.”
27. Challenging Beauty Standards
Nyakim has used her fame and viral posts to challenge the American beauty standards younger girls are bombarded with on a daily basis. “In New York or L.A., you see all types of models, but they still go for the blonde hair and blue eyes in Minnesota — a more ‘commercial’ look. I was signed to an agency here, and not once did they ever get a job for me,” she told Cosmopolitan.
When a designer didn’t want to dress Nyakim in orange because of her skin tone, she began to deliberately wear bright reds and pinks just to prove a point. She also loves to sport metallic colors because they make her feel glamorous and show up well on her skin. So Nyakim is more than happy to don bold metallic looks now.
28. Empowerment and Inspiration
Apart from modeling, Nyakim Gatwech has completed her education degree at Minneapolis Community College, and her dream is to ultimately become an elementary school teacher. She also wants to give back to the community in every single way she can.
“If loving myself and talking about it is helping people, I want to keep doing that. That’s important,” Nyakim told Teen Vogue. She encourages people to reach out to her on social media to chat because self confidence is contagious. A lot of the girls remind her of herself in seventh grade, so she knows if she shares her story, it has the potential to change the world.
29. Drowning out the Hate
There are still times when Nyakim Gatwech receives hateful messages on social media like when someone told her that her skin color is a condition and she owed her fame to that. She replied with a positive response because she doesn’t believe in fueling the fire.
“We’re all human. There’s no need to divide ourselves. There’s no need to think that one person is better than others,” Nyakim told her fans. She said that she regularly tells herself she’s beautiful out loud. Now that’s what you call self-love!
30. Raising Awareness
With her newfound notoriety, Nyakim also began to raise awareness of what was going on in her home country of South Sudan. With a huge fan base, she has been able to speak out about the untold suffering going on in Africa.
It turns out Nyakim was destined for greatness all along, and learning to love herself was a critical part of that journey. There will always be naysayers who try to ruin things, but Nyaki Gatwech knows better than anyone else that success is the best revenge.
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