Nykhor Paul grew up as a refugee in Ethiopia before moving to the United States in 1998. As a supermodel and acting voice for the International Rescue Committee, Paul normally finds herself in front of the camera. But on a recent trip back to Ethiopia, where she was reunited with her parents for the first time in 16 years while visiting a refugee camp in the Gambella region of Ethiopia for South Sudanese refugees, she spent a significant amount of time behind the lens.
We caught up with Nykhor Paul at a New York Fashion Week pop up event hosted by the International Rescue Committee, where Paul’s touching photos were on exhibition, to discuss her experience in Ethopia, her partnership with IRC and what inspires her to give back.
“I always knew that I wanted to help people,” Paul explained. “It started when I was little. I sing, so when my father would go pray for people, I would go along and sing to them.”
Even at university, she studied biology as a way for her to help others. “Then I thought, I don’t need to study this, I just need to pick up and do it! So when Hurricane Katrina hit, that was my first experience going down and helping others. All you need is that passion and going after it”
Paul teamed up with the IRC in 2014 after joining them on a trip to Africa. “Everything I’m hoping for, for my country, is everything they’re doing, so I thought, ‘Let me go to Africa and see how this works, this 81 years of helping people,’” Paul said. “And it was amazing. So when I came back, I said ‘Listen, I would love to be on board and collaborate with you and see what we can do to bring more help.’”
And to be back at the same refugee camp she left 16 years ago, seeing her family again, the feelings Paul had were unlike anything she’s ever felt before. “It was the most emotional trip of my life. I have never cried so much. I came here when I was ten, so to go back at 25, I’m an adult now. It’s so different.”
But even with time and distance keeping her and her family apart, Paul said they really connected again in the two weeks they spent together. “They’re so supportive of me working for the refugees of South Sudan and what the IRC is doing.”
“It’s helping the refugees help themselves. That’s what it’s all about.” Paul explained exactly what the IRC is doing to help the South Sudanese. “You don’t go into a situation to keep that person neutral. That’s not helping. But with the IRC, they encourage the refugees. They help them get jobs and get on their feet. We have to be the example and I respect that so much.”
When asked what it was like to be behind the lens, Paul said, “I have a love for taking pictures. To be able to photograph real faces and real stories, drew me to the people of South Sudan even more.”
The photos of her old refugee camp lined the walls at the IRCxNYFW pop up event. Even a special photo of the reunion with her and her family. “It was great for me,” Paul explained about her what it was like to be back at the camp. “The one thing I really picked up on is how it’s all the same. The refugees and their constant struggle is no different from when I left in 1998, but the resilience they have and the hope– I wanted to capture that. Every day when I visited the spots, I had to grab the shots. They all tell a story of what they’re going through.”
Paul also told us what she hopes people will take away from her photo exhibition. “I hope people take away what the IRC really does. They put a voice to the people all around the world who are suffering. So this showcase is really everything behind what I want to do with refugees, which is put their stories forth so people can see it, relate to it. We are in a visual, technical world so for the IRC putting this up- we hope to raise more awareness by putting a face to what is going on”
As for managing her charity work and her busy modeling career, Paul says it now feels like one in the same. “It’s not just me anymore. It’s not just Nykhor posing. This pose will now be able to bring a voice to every person in my country, so it makes it easy and it makes it one.”
Paul plans on continuing her collaborative efforts with the IRC and hopes to one day travel back to Africa. “I would love to be able to capture the 64 tribes of South Sudan, the more indigenous side of it, even with all the corruption and the war, to just be able to put a voice to it. To find beauty in all that trauma. That’s what I call my career– the beauty and the peace.”
Visit the International Rescue Committee Official Site to find out more about the organization and IRC Voice Nykhor Paul.