As a little girl, she would make models out of clay and strut them down make-believe runways. Nyakim didn’t even know what modeling was at the time but she was drawn to it.
She knew she wanted to be a model before she even knew what modeling was.
Although Nyakim was born in Ethiopia, she is originally from South Sudan. In 1993, while Nyakim was still in her mother’s womb, her family fled South Sudan to escape the harrows of war.
“My mother walked from South Sudan, which was still called Sudan at the time, all the way to the border of Ethiopia. The journey was a month long. We walked for 30 days,” explained Nyakim.
On the tormentous journey, Nyakim’s family faced many hardships, the most heartbreaking being the loss of one of her brothers. Whilst Nyakim can barely remember the grisly experience, her mother will never forget it. “When I speak to my mother about the journey she explains it was very heartbreaking and sad. No family should ever go through something like that.” After an insufferable journey through the wilderness flanked by rebels
A Model in Refuge
“Life at a refugee camp is not easy. There’s a lot of struggling. Not only are you worried about, “What is my kid going to eat for lunch or dinner?” but you also have to worry about their safety because there are always rebels trying to rob, kill, or rape all the young girls.” Nyakim’s mother fiercely protected her family alone because their father stayed behind to fight the war.
Nyakim was never reunited with her father.
“The war may have separated us, but he just stayed behind.”He remarried to multiple wives and started new families. Nyakim’s mother took on both parental roles nurturing her children and trying her best to shield them from the ramifications of their environment. If it wasn’t for her mother’s resilience and unwavering faith, Nyakim wouldn’t be here today. “She is a strong woman. I owe my life to her.”
While at the refugee camp, Nyakim explained how the United Nations came one day to pass out forms for refugees to go to America. Nyakim’s sister was the first of her family to get to the states. By 1999, her sister came to America with her fiance and settled in Buffalo, New York. There, she started the process of bringing Nyakim and her siblings to America.
But that process would be a long one. In interim, Nyakim would discover America’s Next Top Model.
At the refugee camp, kids would find numerous ways to pass time and have fun. Nyakim recalled the time a trip to the city changed her life forever. “Back at the refugee camp there was a city nearby that myself and a bunch of my friends would go to and in the city was this older lady who would let me come over to her house once a week to watch America’s Next Top Model. I would sit there and just stare like “Oh my God, they are so beautiful. When I come to America that’s what I’m going to do.”
This was Nyakim’s first introduction to modeling.
When Nyakim arrived in America she had no knowledge of the English language, or how cruel other people could be. “The kids were just..so so mean. When I first started middle school all I wanted was to learn, make friends and blend in. But that was not the case for me. Kids were rude because of my skin complexion. They said I looked different, I’m ugly, and that I looked like a monkey. Not only were kids making fun of me for my complexion, I didn’t know the language as well.”
Nyakim wasn’t the only member in her family who was teased for having dark skin. Nyakim’s oldest sister was bullied into bleaching her skin to fit into the Eurocentric beauty standards of America .”My older sister fell into the trap of American beauty standards. She bleached her skin. When I would talk to her about it she would tell me not to listen to the kids at my school but I would point out that she did it. She told me when she bleached her skin people did stop talking about her, but she regretted it and wish she could take it back. Even though she told me that, I still wanted to do it to blend in. I was only in middle school. I wanted to be beautiful. As a kid who grew up in a refugee camp, I just wanted to make friends and be happy. I didnt know I was going to feel all of this negativity and judgment towards something I can’t change.”
Ironically, Nyakim relied heavily on her sister to get her through her insecure moments. Even though Nyakim’s sister bleached her skin and it did stop the bullying, it wasn’t worth the mental anguish because it affected more than her skin. It affected her mindset, according to Nyakim.
“My mom didnt understand. She said “Why would you get mad if they call you dark? You are dark” I would always laugh at that, and I would say it wasn’t because they called me dark, it’s because they don’t think I’m beautiful. But I had my sister. She was the one person who constantly reminded me how beautiful I am and how unique my
Nyakim encourages young women and girls to tap into self-love if they find themselves having issues with their skin color or appearance. “When you love yourself, you embrace everything about you, and that was something I was lacking. So I told them my story of how I was lacking self-love and self-confidence and just being comfortable in my own skin. But when I learned self-love, nobody could tell me nothing. Talk to yourself and remind yourself how beautiful you are. “
Nyakim’s struggle with her skin tone rubbed off on her modeling aspirations. How would she model in a world that didn’t think she was attractive? She pushed modeling out of her mind and focused on schooling. She figured she would just go to college and become an elementary school teacher, which she did in addition to modeling. Being a teacher came to Nyakim when she was in middle school dealing with bullies. “I would think to myself this is lack of education. There are so many people in the world who won’t look like you or sound like you. They have different culture, food, and language. When you start teaching kids at a very young age that different is nothing to be scared of, they would be more accepting of differences. “
Nyakim Breaks The Internet
Nyakim broke into the modeling industry after her photo shoot with photographer Isacc West called Different Melanin went viral. The very thing she used to be teased for is what led her to her modeling dreams, her skin color. While her skin color has caused her much attention her whole life, Nyakim doesn’t think models should be booked solely because of their skin. “In the modeling industry, I feel like dark models are in competition because they feel like they’re being booked because of their skin color and I’m like no sis, we should be booked because of our features, and body type. There are so many Caucasian models and they’re not getting booked because of their skin color.
“We just have to remind ourselves that our skin is not all we are good for. we have more. The skin color is just a bonus to who we are and what we stand for.”
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Producer: Gabrielle Amani – @gabrielleamani
Photographer/Creative Director: Ryan Riley – @rizz2k
Interviewer: Endia – @endiathemuse Stylist: Kadeem – @rowanxharper
MUA: Penelope – @penelopems Stylist Ast: Erika Davis – @planetpineapple Edited