Adut Akech: ‘The word family has evolved’

This fashion month, model Adut Akech is CNN Style’s 10th guest editor. She’s commissioned a series of features around the theme of family. I don’t remember much about my earliest years, but certain vivid memories linger: the scorching yet still comforting heat of the African sun, the rich brown color of Kenyan land, adults from backgrounds different than mine helping others with daily needs, and most of all, the carefree laughter and pitter-pattering footsteps from children like myself, never ceasing as we danced in our own little universes.That was life at Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where I spent the majority of my first eight years on earth.There, I not only developed close bonds with my closest relatives — my mother and siblings — but I also had a larger group of people to connect with on a daily basis. They either shared my experiences or empathized with them, and as I ran through the grounds of the camp day after day, I remember being met with smile after smile.I didn’t know it back then, but these people were only the second family I would have in a line of many, many more to come.Eight years into my life, a new journey and more family awaited me on the other side of the world. A long plane ride landed us in southern Australia, where my aunt, who painstakingly petitioned for our future in this new home called Adelaide, welcomed us with open arms. And so began our new life in an unfamiliar but generous community, as well as bigger and bigger reunions with relatives from all branches of my family tree. I continue to call many of those in my generation “brothers” and “sisters,” even if they are cousins in reality. Our bonds have developed strength beyond mere dictionary definitions.Another eight years pass, and a new chapter begins — this time in the world of fashion. My career as a model makes me a nomad by default. My home is now in multiple places around the world, my life is an arrow constantly pointing forward. Adut Akech at her agency in New York. Credit: Kyleen James / The Society Management The fashion industry is a huge, creative family who have been supportive beyond my imagination. It’s a community driven by artistry and synergy with one another; every photo, every film, every collection is the result of different relationships bound together and inspiring each other. Kerby Jean-Raymond, who is one of the contributors for this project, is a brilliant part of this family network, and someone who expresses his own idea of family through his designs. His artistic vision reflects the stories from his community: a “people’s project.”Even with the privilege of an amazing career and the chance to travel globally, I’ve found another kind of family and foundation in New York City, now my second home. After all, it’s necessary to have those you can depend on and trust, even when you are away for weeks at a time. My friends Adot Gak and Aicha Bassoum, as well as my New York manager Cheri Bowen represent people in my life who want me in theirs, who accept me unconditionally the way a family member would. When work becomes stressful or when trips become lonely, I know that there will be voices on the other side of the phone cheering for me. They remind me that family is a support system, made up of sturdy arms that lift up my spirits.Adut stands (top far right) alongside fellow models including Naomi Campbell (center) during Valentino’s couture show in Paris. Credit: Courtesy ValentinoIn this day and age, “family” has become such a beautiful and versatile word. Traditionally, it represents the deep relationships we develop with those who actually share our DNA, but as the world becomes more and more connected, and as more of us start to move away permanently, often farther and farther from our place of birth, we begin to create the same kind of bonds wherever we land. Your trusted friends are family, those who share your ethnic background are family, your local community is your family.At home, the idea of family is also constantly evolving. I have friends who were raised by parents in the LGBTQI community, and many other friends who identify as LGBTQI and intend to start their own beautiful families. This is not yet the case in the entire world, but I hope everyone will have that chance to fulfill the dream of family soon.For my editorship, I wanted to explore how the definition of the word family has evolved, and how it has come to represent something even deeper than immediate blood ties. Though my own life begun with displacement, different forms of family surrounded me and supported me throughout the years. Even those who didn’t know me personally but still supported my own and many others’ existence as refugees represent the most loving of family members. If you are one of them, thank you for being family to me.I may always remain close with my mother and siblings the most, but my heart is open to the world as much as it has opened itself to me. My wish is to use my voice and experiences to show that yes, despite all our differences and disagreements, we can be family to each other.See more from Adut Akech’s guest editorship here.