As a child she fled a war in Sudan, spent three years in a Kenyan refugee camp where her mother died of malaria and moved to Australia with her seven siblings as a refugee – and while Ajak Deng has gone through more in her 27 years than most should ever have to endure in a lifetime, she has a wholly “glass half full” approach to life.
Now one of Australia’s top models, having walked for the likes of Givenchy, Lanvin, Chloe, Jean Paul Gaultier and Valentino, Deng has signed on to be the face of this year’s The Body Shop Christmas campaign, Play for Peace, that aims to raise $440,000 to help refugee children affected by war in Syria heal through play.
Each gift purchased from the store’s seasonal gift collections will go towards the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon to help children deal with the trauma they have experienced during war and displacement.
Deng jumped at the chance to star in the campaign because she feels it is her duty to pass on the same acts of kindness shown to her by Australians.
“The Australian government brought us here because they felt sorry for my father with eight kids having just lost a wife, and that to me is such a beautiful thing,” she told Fairfax Media this week from Sydney.
“The Australian people have such a heart, welcoming people in.”
Raised in Melbourne from the age of 11, Deng, who now lives in New York but says she’ll always be “an Aussie girl”, feels “optimistic” about the plight of refugees despite Australia’s controversial “stop the boats” policy and US President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
“It is not good but sometimes as humans we have to go through the block in order to realise how to unblock it and how to come together as one people,” Deng said.
“I don’t like that it is happening but I feel like it will change us for the better.”
Deng’s family left their home during the Second Sudanese Civil War because her parents wanted a better life for their children.
“My parents got tired of running all of the time. How do you tell a newborn to ‘shush’ because they might find us if you cry? My father didn’t want to keep worrying, ‘will my family be killed?’
“Now I can give back and help the people who cannot help themselves.”
Last year Deng announced she had left the modelling industry over “fakes and lies”, returning less than a week later.
But she said she really had planned to quit: “The whole cattiness thing was too much – we don’t need to be rude to each other or racist to each other. I just got fed up with all of the lies.”
She explained that casting agents would sometimes confuse her with other models of the same skin colour and if someone was rude or would not say hello, she would get the blame.
“It has changed now because I dived into quitting and everyone said, ‘Don’t quit, we didn’t know you would be that dramatic’,” she laughed.
“I now think people are starting to know the difference between coloured girls. If there is another black girl they know that that is her and this is me, so they don’t think, ‘Ajak did it’.
“When you speak out people listen.”