Pageant aims to build self-confidence in Sudanese-American women

Pageant organizer Yar Kang stands for a portrait .
Pageant organizer Yar Kang stands for a portrait outside of her Burnsville apartment on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

When two dozen women from around the country compete Saturday for the title of Miss South Sudan USA, they'll try to impress judges with their smarts, talent, and yes, beauty.

But what is beauty, and who gets to define it?

Pageant organizer Yar Kang of Burnsville said she spent years wrestling with those questions. Kang's skin is a rich coffee brown, and as a young girl, she said, the people around her didn't find her dark skin attractive.

"Growing up in Sudan, being dark, you always feel like you don't fit in anywhere," she recalled. "I always felt, in my heart, there was somewhere that people considered me beautiful."

Kang is resurrecting the pageant she founded in 2006 as an initiative to build self-confidence in Sudanese-American women. The pageant will be held in Sioux Falls, S.D., home to a large South Sudanese population.

This is the first time it's being revived after a five-year break. Kang halted the pageant in 2013 after South Sudan descended into civil war.

Awel Lam of Duluth is competing in the Miss South Sudan USA
Awel Lam, 26, of Duluth is competing in the Miss South Sudan USA competition Saturday in Sioux Falls, S.D. Lam said she wants to use the pageant's platform to help unify her community and improve access to health care in underdeveloped countries.
Courtesy of Seth Aryee

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the conflict, and the bad blood from the homeland had spilled into the diaspora community in Minnesota, said Awel Lam, 26, who will compete in the pageant. She's also Kang's niece.

"People from certain tribes were divided because of the war back home," said Lam. "That war back home did project into the U.S., and it did infect us."

While growing up in Rochester, Lam remembers her community coming together for graduation parties and church events. But she said after the war broke out, it all stopped.

"It really broke my heart. When I grew up, I didn't even know tribe; I didn't know the difference amongst all South Sudanese people," she said. "That's why I want to push unity back again in Minnesota first. As Miss South Sudan, I would like to be an ambassador for peace and bring these families together."

Lam said she has reason to be hopeful, both here and abroad. The pageant is making its comeback on the same week South Sudan celebrated a new peace deal.

A senior at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Lam is studying public health. Her dream is to one day improve access to health care in underdeveloped countries like South Sudan.

And like her aunt, Lam also sees the pageant as a powerful symbol to little girls of color who might be doubting their worth.

"If they see somebody like me doing things where my beauty is displayed — and also my education, background, knowledge and desire to be an international force — I feel like that would also give them that hope that they can do what I do," she said.

Yar Kang unwraps the crown that will be given to the winner.
Yar Kang unwraps the crown that will be given to the winner of the Miss South Sudan USA pageant this weekend in her Burnsville apartment on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Recent Census estimates say there are up to 3,200 people in Minnesota who were born in Sudan. One of them, until recently, was model Nyakim Gatwech, known on social media as the "Queen of the Dark" for her dark skin. She moved to New York about a month ago to follow her modeling career.

Gatwech said she's heard of the pageant and supports its premise. As a middle-schooler trying to blend in the United States, she once considered bleaching her skin. Today, she still sees South Sudanese-American women lighten their skin, while their children have dark brown complexions.

"How do they think their kids feel when they look at their pictures and see that 'Mom is way lighter than I am,'" she said. "I always try to tell people in my community that bleaching is not an option."

She also tells young girls that while she has faced discrimination in the modeling agency because of her complexion, her dark skin is now getting her jobs.

"Every day, I preach that dark skin is beautiful," she said.

The contestants in Saturday's pageant are coming from places like Nebraska, Tennessee and Alaska. Most have never competed in a pageant before.

Kang, the organizer, remembers the exhilaration she felt from competing in her first pageant. On a whim, she entered a contest for African women while living in Egypt. She took third place.

"From that moment, it was like something just changed in my head," she said. "Whoever was saying we're not beautiful — that was a lie."

That was in the early '90s. Asked whether the pageant had a swimsuit category, she laughed uncontrollably for 32 seconds.

"No!" she said. "Are you kidding me?"

There won't be swimsuits at Saturday's competition, either.

The women will wear traditional African dress, evening gowns, or even jeans — whatever they choose, Kang said.

"I want our girls to know they're beautiful, no matter what," she said.

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