My name is Gai Manyok, and I’m a South Sudanese refugee.
Despite not being born in South Sudan, I would hear stories about my homeland from my elders at the refugee camp where I grew up. These were the only insights I had into the place I called my homeland.
They would speak for hours about the country they loved, but was unfortunately made inhabitable. They would tell me about the civil war, and how they witnessed people being killed and villages being destroyed.
My elders also shared stories about my father, a great man who died in the war before I was born. He was a very hardworking and helpful man, and was widely admired in the village.
After my father was killed, my mother travelled to Kenya, and settled in Kakuma Refugee Camp while she was pregnant with me. I was born on 3rd March, 2002 at Kakuma Hospital.
Life growing up in the camp was difficult. I lived with my mother, grandma and my four siblings in a single room in a house made from mud. Food was always scarce, and I would often go to school hungry, walking there without any shoes. Life was also incredibly difficult for my mom, who became deaf before I was born as she was bitten by dog and then became sick and lost her hearing. She would still work long hours as a tailor to provide for us.
As a teenager I began thinking that I needed to find a way to change my life. My cousin Deu was a model, and I told him that I wanted to try modelling too. He took Polaroids of me and sent them to an agency in Nigeria called My Booker Models. Uchenna, an agent at the agency saw my pictures and liked me and sent me a contract shortly afterwards. This was when I was 17 years old, and since that point I’ve been learning everything I can about the fashion industry.
Modelling has changed my life. I’m incredibly grateful to my cousin Deu for introducing me to modelling, he inspires me every day. Since I started modelling, I’ve worked for many designers and have appeared in music videos for acclaimed musician OCTOPIZZO and the legendary South Sudanese–Canadian artist Emmanuel Jal.
My first ever season in the modelling industry was when I flew from Kenya to London in April for fashion week. It was an amazing experience working with lovely people. I got my first ever cover for DAZED magazine – an opportunity that very few newcomers get in the modelling industry.
I write this not long after returning from Kakuma to visit my mom and siblings. As I look around, I hope that I’m able to inspire other refugees from Kakuma to follow their dreams, and that one day there will be more models from Kakuma being successful overseas.
I’m eternally grateful to my team at Models1, Editor-in-Chief Ib Kamara @DAZED, Lucien Clarke, and all of the casting directors, makeup artists, photographers and stylists that gave me a chance. I have so much love for everyone behind the scenes.
To keep up with Gai, you can follow him on Instagram here.
To read more inspiring refugee stories from around the world, please visit our website here.