Nykhor Paul, 26, fled the country that is now South Sudan with her uncle in 1998, when she was just 9 years old. She came to the U.S. as a refugee, leaving her parents and eight siblings behind. After decades of civil war, Paul's homeland gained independence from Sudan in July 2011. But the ensuing peace was tragically short-lived. Last December, violence erupted in South Sudan between the country's two largest tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer. Within months, more than a million people lost their homes, and famine engulfed much of the nation. A cease-fire was agreed to in May, but it was broken in a matter of hours, and the situation remains extremely fragile. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has warned of possible genocide there if fighting continues.
Shortly after war broke out, the New York–based Paul, a member of the Nuer tribe, founded the group We Are Nilotic, referring to the South Sudanese as all one people "of the Nile." Using social media, photo exhibits, and film, she is bringing together women from the nation's estimated 64 tribes to promote peace and end ethnic rivalries.
MARIE CLAIRE: What motivated you to start We Are Nilotic?
NYKHOR PAUL: Seeing the fighting on the news was heartbreaking because it brought back memories of my childhood. I lived in a refugee camp for three years, so I know what it is like to have no food and no security, and to feel like you could die at any moment.
MC: How is your family?
NP: Most of them are safe in a camp in Ethiopia. I was mostly worried about my brother, who had left the camp to find a job in South Sudan's capital, Juba. I was working at the couture shows in February when I got a call from a relative saying he had been shot and killed while trying to run away from the fighting. He was only 18. I was devastated but realized I had to try to help others facing the same appalling dangers.
MC: How did you start the campaign?
NP: I reached out to other South Sudanese women I knew and said to them, "We must do something to save our country." I felt that if we joined together as sisters from all the different tribes, maybe that could help bring an end to the feuding.
MC: What do you hope to achieve?
NP: It's the same as when I was a child—civilians are caught in the middle. We want the international community to make sure women and children are taken away from the violence and that they have food and medicine. Right now, thousands of people are dying because of the shortages.
MC: As a South Sudanese woman, how hard is it to speak out?
NP: It's very difficult. I come from a society where women don't have many rights. Men think we should stay out of politics. Most girls are married off at 12 or 14. I was supposed to have an arranged marriage, too, but was lucky to escape. That's why I feel I have to use my privileged position to be a voice for other women in my country. At the end of the day, I am still a refugee girl with a refugee family trapped in this horrific situation. I have to do everything I can to help.