Peruse Models.com and among their rankings of the "top sexiest" and "money girls" that go up and down like the FTSE 100, you'll find a list with a little more substance. Models.com's Humanitarian Award gives the spotlight to the runway stars who dedicate their time and platform to drawing attention to causes close to their hearts. This year, both the industry and reader vote went to original supermodel Christy Turlington, but a striking newcomer sat among more established nominees Natalia Vodianova, Liya Kebede and Naomi Campbell. Her name? Nykhor Paul.
"I couldn't believe it when I saw that I had been nominated. I even emailed Naomi Campbell to say that I was honored to even be on the list with her," says Nykhor enthusiastically, as she sits on set for her i-D shoot in between fittings for London Fashion Week. The 25-year-old New York-based model is using her platform to speak out about the crisis in her native South Sudan, where the civil war has ravaged the country since December 2013, causing widespread violence and famine. According to official United Nations figures, 1.3 million people remain displaced, and 450,000 have left for the safety of neighbouring countries. "Growing up in South Sudan, before my family became refugees in Ethiopia in 1995, was very difficult," Nykhor remembers. "Not only due to the ongoing war between North and South Sudan, but also due to the fights between tribes and the subsequent scattering of my family in search of safety. We were constantly moving, in search of food and shelter."
Nykhor emigrated to the United States in 1998, with help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency that helps procure safety for refugees and victims of war-torn countries. She set up life in Houston, Texas, but sadly she had to leave her mother and father behind. "The move to the United States was very shocking. I came from a village, and I didn't speak English or know anything about the West, but the hardest thing to cope with was knowing that I had left my family behind in the refugee camp." She soon relocated to Nebraska, where the reality of being thousands of miles away from her family truly set in. "It was so cold. At least Texas was warm. We had never seen snow — someone had to explain it to us."
After batting away suggestions that she should take up modeling, Nykhor's striking looks caught the eye of a scout from the famed Ford Models agency in Chicago when she was still at school. In 2008, she moved to New York and signed to RED Model Management, and the runways of Vivienne Westwood, Balenciaga and Rick Owens soon came calling, as well as campaigns for the likes of Louis Vuitton. "In fashion, I represent my country and all the beautiful South Sudanese girls who didn't get a chance to escape refugee life. If they did have a chance, they'd all be modeling, like me." Impassioned to help, Nykhor set up a foundation, We Are Nilotic, to promote peace and unity among the 64 tribes of South Sudan. Nilotic means people of the Nile, and the aim of the initiative is to help bring awareness to the crisis in South Sudan, the many lives it has disrupted and the future generations at risk. "There is a lack of media coverage. Our goal is to raise awareness by sharing stories as refugees of the world, so others can get an understanding of what we went through. Collectively I feel we can make a difference."
Nykhor rallied together fellow models Ataui Deng, Eligha Ojoko and Ajak Deng to feature in an exhibition by photographer Mike Mellia, portraying South Sudanese people who escaped the conflict. She also recently joined forces with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as one of their IRC voices, alongside John Legend and Rashida Jones, to speak up and help those around her understand what refugees go through. Since working with the IRC, she has spoken about the conflict at primetime on CNN and in 2015 she was one of the few people to press the ceremonial button to lower the Times Square New Year's Eve Ball, along with fellow South Sudanese icon and model Alek Wek. The IRC also reunited Nykhor with her parents for the first time in 16 years while she was on a philanthropic trip to Ethiopia with the organization. "Seeing my mother's face was priceless and everything that I dreamt of while I was in the States."
Not content with her accomplishments so far, Nykhor has big plans for We are Nilotic. "I hope to lay the foundations for bringing education, healthcare and jobs to help the refugees become self-sufficient." In a world of ice bucket challenges and charitable hashtags, models getting involved in causes can sometimes feel like a ride on the trending-topics-bandwagon rather than a sincere call to arms, but Nykhor is someone whose humble beginnings, current success and hope for the future is sure to bring about positive change. Beautiful and considerate, she is the perfect example of how to use your platform to attract attention to worthy causes. Her tireless work today will no doubt inspire a whole generation tomorrow, making Nykhor the true definition of a model citizen.
Text Lynette Nylander
Photography Nick Dorey
Styling Jack Borkett
Hair Mari Ohashi at LGA Management using L’Oréal Professional.
Make-up Lucy Burt at D+V Management using Chanel spring/summer 15 and Chanel Body Excellence.
Photography assistance James Donovan, Fabian Nordstrom, Ben Parks.
Lighting Matt at Spring.
Styling assistance Kate Iorga, Marsida Rexhepaj.
Hair assistance Rogerio Da Silva.
Make-up assistance Clare Gregory.
Model Nykhor Paul at Nevs.
Nykhor wears jumper Acne