The Journey of a Cover Girl
Former homeless orphan Nyanyia Deng shares her incredible life story
My story begins thousands of miles away from the cameras, high fashion, glitz and glamour of modeling.
Born in Wau, a small village in Sudan (now South Sudan) and having grown up in Kenya, I learned I had to fend for myself early on in life. I have never met my father and at the age of 3 when my mother died, I was taken to Kenya where I lived as an orphan. It was difficult, to say the least.
Every day I struggled. I moved from city to city, went with little or no food and sometimes I had to sleep outside under trees. I also often found myself in physically abusive situations.
Through Lutheran Children and Family Services, I was eventually paired with my first of three foster families. Despite the hardships and poverty I faced daily, I didn’t want to leave Africa. I had too many unanswered questions for my father. I needed to know why he didn’t he take care of my siblings and me when our mother died. Why did he allow us to become orphans and live such a horrible life?
My sister reassured me that if I left for a better life in America, one day I could go back to South Sudan to find my father and the answers to my burning questions. At the age of 14, I reluctantly boarded a flight to begin the long journey to the United States and what I was told would be a better life with my sister, uncle and two cousins.
The first leg of our trip was from Kenya to London. This was my first time ever leaving Africa, let alone flying on an airplane. The uncertainty, nervousness and fear of what was awaiting us caused me to get sick and lose my appetite. From London, we flew to New York. There were so many people in LaGuardia Airport and it seemed so big. We ended up getting lost! Our communication barrier made it difficult, but a very nice airport employee helped us figure out where we needed to be and drove us to the correct gate for our final flight.
We arrived in Michigan on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27, 2003, and were greeted by our new foster family and freezing temperatures. I had never experienced temperatures that low or seen snow. That night we ate turkey for the first time. The next morning, to our surprise, we woke up to six inches of snow. I told my foster mom there was no way I was going outside!
Sadly, it took years to find the refuge that I was promised here in the United States. In addition to dealing with severe culture shock, my family and I were mistreated in our new home—especially my sister, Nyanut, who was emotionally abused by our foster father. That, in addition to taunting in school, made the transition to the States seemingly unbearable. Without proper preparation, I was thrown into an environment of people that I was not used to.
Prior to coming to the U.S., I had never seen other races and ethnicities. Where I came from, everyone looked like me. The kids in my new middle school teased me because I was different. They called me names like “monkey” and made fun of the way I talked, looked and my tomboy style. I often found myself getting into fist fights and resorting to the violent ways I had developed to protect myself back in Africa.
Between home and school, I cried almost every day. I wasn’t happy here in America.
Unfortunately, removing ourselves from the negativity in our new home meant my sister, uncle, cousins and I would have to be split up into new foster families in different cities in Michigan.
I was finally getting adjusted to my new placement, high school and living life in a foreign country without my family from back home when things took a turn for the worst and I got into a fight with my foster mom’s boyfriend. In addition to chaos at home, false accusations of being suicidal landed me in a juvenile detention center for 35 days.
After escaping hardships, abuse and injustice in Africa, I refused to be a victim here. My frustration and anger with life in America reached an all time high and I wanted to return to Africa immediately. Life there was deplorable, but it was home and familiar territory.
Thankfully, Brenda, a tutor at my high school, offered to take me in upon my release from the detention center. Brenda provided the safe, stable environment that I needed and to this day she is the mother figure and support system that I’ve longed for since I was a little girl. In my new home, I finally started living a normal life.
In 2004, my sister asked me to accompany her to a model audition in Lansing. With absolutely no interest in modeling, I waited for her in the hallway. To my surprise, I was approached by a stranger who told me I should be trying out, too. I politely declined, but the woman was persistent and insisted that I audition. She even offered to pay for the pricey training classes the agency was offering to the models they selected if I ended by being chosen. In an effort to simply satisfy this stranger, I entered the model casting.
I was selected.
I was enrolled in the agency’s classes, received training and one year later I was entered my first runway and photography competition. I traveled to Florida for the Actors, Models & Talent for Christ competition. I was excited about the opportunity, but I remember being extremely nervous about the swimsuit portion of the contest.
In Africa, being in public wearing very little clothing was forbidden. I couldn’t believe they wanted me to walk down the runway in a swimsuit in front of so many people! I was ready to drop out of the competition. But once again, Brenda stepped in with the reassurance and confidence I needed. I ended up taking first place in every category I entered.
I have modeled off and on since then. Signing with HOP Models & Talent Agency last year has opened a lot doors, allowing me to meet many people, travel throughout the U.S. and take advantage of amazing modeling opportunities. Among these amazing opportunities are the recent fashion editorials for a future issue of Essence magazine and the September 2011 issue of B.L.A.C. magazine.
After living in the United States for nearly nine years, I continue to search for balance between my African traditions and values and the American traditions and culture that I’m still growing accustom to. For instance, my family in Africa believes in arranged marriages and dowries, or gift offerings, such as cows for a woman’s hand in marriage. As I date, I’ve had to combine the firm African rules, responsibilities and expectations my culture teaches women to follow, in often male-dominated relationships, with the equally distributed power and responsibility most American couples share.
When it comes to American food, I am not a fan! I don’t eat it very often. Some people might frown at this, but I come from a culture that uses our hands to eat every meal. If I’m not eating with my hands, I don’t feel like I’m eating properly.
When I became a mother in 2005, I was forced to learn how to cook. I enjoy preparing traditional African meals and cooking has become one of my favorite hobbies. I’ve even thought about opening a restaurant in the future.
While I hope to make modeling my career one day, I continue to do various kinds of jobs to support myself and my two beautiful little girls, Akuach and Achol, between modeling gigs. I have worked in a food factory packaging beef and in an auto plant. I braid hair. My two daughters are my greatest blessing and my motivation to succeed in whatever I end up doing.
In Africa, I was given the nickname Bruce Lee because of all the fighting I used to do. Now my family jokingly asks me what happened to that tough girl. I tell them when I became a mother, I knew it was time to give up my old ways and become the woman I want my girls to grow up to be. Because of them, I have changed for the better.
In the near future, I look forward to reconnecting with my family in Africa and finally meeting my father. We’ve developed a relationship over the phone after we were connected by a family member a few years ago.
Although I have dealt with a great deal of pain, I am grateful for my experiences. Coming from nothing has allowed me to appreciate all that I have now and helped me to realize my worth. I have been bruised but not broken, and I pray every day that God continues to direct my path and lead me and my daughters toward a bright and happy future.