I grew up in what is now South Sudan. When civil war started, we had to move north to Khartoum. My lighter-skinned Sudanese neighbors conveyed that my dark skin was not beautiful. I did not see dark-skinned women in magazines and television. Years later, living in Egypt, I competed in a Miss Africa beauty pageant, and finished third. 

I found work as a nanny for an American couple. I traveled with them to Florida and South Dakota. In 1997, I got help seeking political asylum in the U.S. It took a long time but, because of the challenges in my home country, I got it. It was my dream to host a pageant that specifically lifted up the beauty of dark-skinned women. I watched pageants on television and learned how to do it. 

There are two types of beauty: inside and outside. The U.S. standard for beauty is generally depicted as light-skinned people with light hair and perfectly aligned teeth. It’s the opposite of my culture’s standard of beauty — which is having dark skin and gapped teeth. 

In other words, we define beauty in many different ways based on what our surrounding community tells us is true.

That is why, since 2006, I have hosted the Miss South Sudan pageant here in the Midwest, to showcase what makes our community beautiful. About 500 women have participated in it — all immigrants who escaped the conflicts of our home country.

The most recent winner, Awel Lam, is from Rochester. She is studying healthcare at the University of Minnesota in Duluth. After she graduates, she wants to return to South Sudan and help communities combat disease.

The judges make choices based on how women respond to questions, education level, how they carry themselves, and what they know about South Sudan. How do they incorporate the demands of being from two countries? How might they bring education back to South Sudan? 

Physical beauty does not define me, or anyone, as a woman. We do not define men based only on what they look like, and the same is true of women. That is why the pageant also includes other criteria. We need to learn more how to treat others as full human beings. 

South Sudan women are smart, beautiful, capable, and important members of the society. We are not simply models. We are doctors, lawyers, and engineers, and we are all capable of going far. We make things happen. 
What I make happen, this year as in the past, is to showcase and celebrate the inner and outer beauty of women.