WASHINGTON / MINNEAPOLIS - Two years ago, Sara Duku received a telephone call that would change the way she saw herself both personally and professionally.
An annual conference called South Sudan Unite, run by the Luol Deng Foundation, needed South Sudanese fashion designers to display their creations for the event's fashion show. Organizers wanted to feature Duku's clothing at the event, which was held in Dallas, Texas, in 2017.
The now-22-year-old seamstress who "dabbled in sewing" hesitated.
"They called me a fashion designer and I didn't see myself as a fashion designer. I didn't see myself as creative or in the art industry. Even when I first came, I didn't know where I myself was heading," said Duku at this year's show, held recently in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Duku, who is from South Sudan and didn't even know how to cut clothing patterns two years ago, was filled with anxiety.
"Are they going to like me? Are they going to judge me?" she asked.
Duku said she reluctantly accepted the invitation. She began designing her pieces, debuting them in 2017 at the fashion show in Texas.
"That first fashion show really took me in the direction that I am in now. People believed in me enough to put this label on me and actually believed that I was good. I actually believed that I was good, too," said Duku.
She has since started Duku's Boutique and Tailoring, a home-based startup in Dallas that serves the local South Sudanese diaspora.
Her growth is emblematic of the vision behind South Sudan Unite of inspiring the diaspora to come together and build.
That development has come amid challenges facing South Sudan, the world's youngest country.
The onset of conflict in December 2013 — stemming from a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his then-deputy, Riek Machar — crippled South Sudan's economy and led to the declaration of a famine in February 2017.
Amid the collapse of peace negotiations between South Sudan's leaders and the spread of the conflict, the diaspora gathered in Washington for the first South Sudan Unite conference.
Arek Deng is the chief executive officer of the Luol Deng Foundation, which was founded by her brother, two-time National Basketball Association All-Star Luol Deng. Arek Deng said the conference was aimed at highlighting the community's strength and discussing issues, including the effect of conflict on South Sudanese, young and old.
"We started to realize that was happening amongst the older generation, but it started to affect the younger generation, where we were beginning to attack each other," said Deng.
Mistrust and division among South Sudanese at home and in the diaspora grew, social media became a battleground for angry South Sudanese and hate speech became the weapon of choice.
Those divisions were reflected in how South Sudan Unite was received.
Arek Deng said the Luol Deng Foundation went ahead with plans to grow the event.
Force for change
"We thought that the youth would be the driving force to make a change in how we view each other as South Sudanese. South Sudan Unite became a platform to celebrate all of our cultures, all of our differences and all of our similarities in a platform that is positive," said Deng. South Sudan is home to dozens of ethnic groups.
Duku credited the South Sudan Unite community for her growth as a young professional.
"Even just looking at myself from the first year to here, I'm proud of myself. I have grown mentally, spiritually. Every area of my life is starting to find meaning," she said. "The scars are there, but those scars are healing other people."