A Model's Amazing Journey

updated 09/03/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/03/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sixteen years after fleeing civil war in Sudan, Alek Wek reflects on her ordeal—and on her unexpected rise to the top of the fashion world

It was a command most fashion models dread. "'Don't freak out, but they want you to lose five lbs.,'" Alek Wek's agent told her one day. Her response? "I was like, 'I don't think so,'" says the 5'11", then 135-lb.Wek. "You're not going to nourish your body for what, a picture? The whole weight thing is so ridiculous." Her impatience is not surprising in light of her life story. Raised in Sudan, Wek and her family were forced to flee their hometown of Wau in 1985 when civil war tore apart the country. Hiding out in remote villages, "we had nothing—you didn't know where the next meal was coming from," she recalls. Eventually she escaped to England, where she was literally discovered on the street, then soared to the top of her profession in the late '90s, walking runways for Chanel and Dior and landing the cover of Elle. Now Wek, 30, has chronicled her experiences in Alek, her new memoir. Between photo shoots for Vogue and M.A.C Cosmetics and trips to her homeland, she sat down with PEOPLE's Charlotte Triggs in the Brooklyn brownstone she shares with her boyfriend Riccardo Sala, a real estate developer, and opened up about her improbable journey.

At the age of 8, that's when I started to hear gunshots and rockets from far away. Then you hear them getting closer. Then nobody's going out in the evening. It got really eerie. People were disappearing.

Soon, Wau was a battleground.

The police and militias were fighting right in the streets. You couldn't come out of the house for days. Then in the middle of the night, they came to our door. My mom locked it and they thought the sound was a gun and started shooting at the house.

Fleeing for their lives, the family walked 300 harrowing miles through the forest, surviving on whatever fruit they found.

Everyone in the area left with whatever they could take. A few blankets, pots and pans and so forth. When we got to the edge of town, the bridge was closed so we had to cross the river in a canoe. It was chaos. I didn't realize we were going to be walking for two weeks, but then my mom made it into an adventure, into this fun thing, like, we're going camping, and discovering all these fruits! It was hard for me at first. I had to learn, "What shall I do if I see a lion? What shall I do to make sure I don't get bitten by a scorpion?"

Wek's father, Athian, suffered severe complications from earlier hip surgery, which went untreated.

His hip had a piece of iron in it that was supposed to be taken out. Walking all those miles, it became infected really badly. We decided to walk back toward Wau so he could be flown to the hospital in Khartoum. [Because of his injury] the trip took a month instead of two weeks. At that point, my father could barely walk. He never showed pain, because he didn't want to scare us, but I could feel it.

They made it to Khartoum, but her father's health was failing.

Eventually, he was paralyzed. He couldn't speak. This was the strong guy that always protected us and now we all took care of him. When he passed away at my uncle's house in Khartoum, I was like, "Why?" You never think that death is going to happen in your family. We weren't allowed to go to his funeral—in our culture wherever there was a funeral, there were no children. Maybe it would have made it worse to see it.

After Athian's death Wek, then 14, left Sudan on a refugee visa to live in London with her sister, who had moved there years earlier with her architect husband.

You can't come back home. You don't know when you'll see your mom. You're ripped from everything. I had to learn everything again, even to do simple things. Like, I want to play. So you have to go to the park. You can't just go running down the road. Milk doesn't taste the same. I learned to say "Hello," and someone would say, "Hi, how are you?" and I was like, "Huh?" It was overwhelming.

Out of the blue, a modeling scout approached Wek at a London market.

I had a grant for art school and my mother [who had joined Wek in London] said, "Get your diploma. Get a job." But the scout called my mom, so I went in. Modeling was completely new for me. I'd never taken my clothes off in front of people. I was shy. And for a while I wasn't working. I was freaking out that I made the wrong choice.

Soon Wek was in demand, though often for "black" gigs, posing in jungle-themed ads, and even in a cup as "espresso." Still, she didn't find it demeaning.

Being a model is not about being a model for yourself, unless you want to get into a fight with photographers and clients. They'll get another girl that will do anything without whining and complaining. Besides, a girl who's pale and put out in the middle of Iceland for a shoot—is she going to complain, "Why am I being typecast?" If it's artistic, I don't mind. If I feel I'm being disrespected, I'll stand up and say something.

In 1998 Wek finally returned to Sudan.

For me, it was closure. To see where my father is buried, to feel that his spirit still lives. I've been lucky to come out in exile and have freedom to study and have a career. It dawned on me that my parents laid down everything to give me an opportunity in life.

Focusing on her handbag line, wek1933 (named for her father's birth year), Wek sets her sights beyond the runway.

Let fashion not fool you. There's a bigger world out there than our small bubble where we feel so fabulous. The best thing that this industry has given me is a voice. So in a way, it's my responsibility to give back and shed light on a place where the people are voiceless.

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