Alek Wek is many things, but positioned firmly among the multiple hyphenates that follow her name—supermodel-humanitarian-designer-painter-entrepreneur—is this one: Brooklynite. Wek moved to Fort Greene years ago when, after spending her weekends traveling back and forth from the East Village to Brooklyn, she became determined to make her home in Fort Greene. Wek loved the neighborhood for its “mom-and-pop shops, corner stores and diversity.” It wasn’t long before she found what she was looking for. Wek told us, “I walked into my place and I felt like, ‘This can be home.’” What followed is familiar to anyone who has tackled a big home-renovation project: first went the call to 1-800-MATTRESS, so she could at least have a place to sleep, and then, of course, came another six years of renovations that were designed to maintain the integrity—down to replicating the original flooring—of her Fort Greene Park-adjacent brownstone.
Alek Wek: One of the Beautiful People
Beyond her artistic outlets, Wek is closely involved with the aforementioned UN refugee agency; she has traveled often to South Sudan with the UNHCR, most recently to the city of Juba this past July to mark the anniversary of South Sudan’s declaration of independence . For Wek, who left Sudan as a refugee in 1991, the opportunity to return as someone with both a platform and the ability to effect change was overwhelming and exciting. “I never felt like it would be this way; to be there again was surreal. It gave me goose bumps. After so much conflict, a place where there were 50 different tribes put against each other, now to see the people celebrating each other’s differences… it’s really beautiful.”
Wek recognizes there’s a long way to go in South Sudan, and is especially passionate about promoting education and healthcare, particularly for young women. She told us how “really shocked I was that young girls, the age of eighth-graders—that’s 13 or 14 years old—are dying in childbirth. More than 50 percent of the country’s population is [under 18]. We have to empower them and encourage education to lead them to healthier lives so that there will be no repeat of the atrocities. A lot of lives were lost. At the end of this, we must build infrastructure. How else do you snap out of 20 years of fighting? We must give people the tools.”
In 2006, Wek started the non-profit foundation WEK, which stands for Working to Educate Kids, in order to play a bigger role in rebuilding communities by emphasizing the importance of education. Wek sees the value in this approach because of her belief that education will bring a diversity of students together so they can debate within the confines of a safe environment and learn how to “agree to disagree.” Wek believes this is a key component in building a future for a country that has long been riven by conflict.
Wek is one of nine children and comes from a family with a strong scholarly ethic, so it makes perfect sense that promoting education is something she’s passionate about. Wek is never so animated and proud as when she talks about her large and impressive family, including the nieces who are studying at Cambridge and, especially, her mother. Wek’s mother sounds about as incredible as you’d imagine a woman who escaped a war-torn country and resettled abroad with nine children would be.
Wek says that when she first told her mother, who lives in London, she was moving to Fort Greene, her mother exclaimed, “You’re moving to Brooklyn? Why?!” Back then, Wek explained, “Fort Greene only had one really ‘fancy’ restaurant and there wasn’t the flea market yet, which I love. Now I love going to the Flea and the farmer’s market on Saturdays after I wake up early to walk my fox terrier off-leash in the park. But everyone used to ask me, ‘Why are you moving to Brooklyn?’” Wek laughed remembering this and told us how much she loves it here now, listing some of her favorite places, like the movie theater on Court Street (Cobble Hill Cinemas) and restaurants like the General Greene, Roman’s, Madiba, and Marlow and Sons, where she tried her first oysters.
The things she loves about Fort Greene—“the diversity, you know, it’s not just this or that, it’s the original people who still live here”—have added up to give Wek a sense of home she hasn’t felt anywhere else. Speaking about when she first moved to Fort Greene, when practically all she had in her new home was her as-seen-on-TV mattress, Wek said, “For the first time, I didn’t miss my old place. All I had was my bed, but I was home.”