How 18-Year-Old Model Jean Mpalomby Went from Refugee to Runway Walker

He left Congo at the age of 9, and now he's hitting the catwalk at New York Fashion Week

Photo: Andre Watson, Devon Adderly for Mykel C. Smith Creative

Model Jean Mpalomby is a poster child for defying the odds.

Born in the Congo at the height of the country’s late ’90s civil war, Mpalomby saw his world shatter at just 1 year old when his father, a former runner for Congo’s national team, fled the country for Canada, fearing for his life. “They were trying to kill him,” Mpalomby, now 18, tells PEOPLE. “He had to run away.”

It was nearly another decade before Mpalomby and his mother were able to reunite with his father, finally getting in touch with him and reconnecting in the United States. But the road to their reunion wasn’t an easy one.

After his father left, Mpalomby and his mother were alone. “We were stuck in the Congo in the middle of the war,” he recalls. “It was really scary.” Fearing for their safety, mother and son fled to a village nearby, out of the thick of the conflict.

Despite this relocation, life was still difficult. Mpalomby remembers receiving death threats so real, his mother was forced to hire bodyguards to watch over their house while they slept.

Life in America offered opportunity and safety, but also some hardships. The most difficult aspect of the move, Mpalomby says, was the language barrier: when he arrived in the U.S. he didn’t speak a word of English. It made bullying on the playground – a first for him – even harder to combat, he says.

“When I first started to go this kid started bullying me because I was African,” he recalls. “I got in a fight my first few weeks at school because I didn’t know what to say to him. But I knew he was saying bad stuff about me.”

However, it didn’t hinder him for long: He says it took him only a year to get a grasp on English. Soon, he shook off the bullies and assimilated.

Today, Mpalomby is a multi-threat force when it comes to school: he makes good grades, is a member of the National Honor Society, is president of student council and a competitive soccer player. Oh, and he’s walking in New York Fashion Week.

He says that since signing with his agency, Red Model Management, in May of 2014, he’s been able to ease into the modeling world without having schoolwork on his plate, too. Hopefully he can keep that balance going: He’s already been photographed in campaigns for brands like Moschino and Opening Ceremony, with more likely to come.

There have been speed bumps to success, though: After his father passed away earlier this year, many of the household responsibilities, including partial care of his brothers, fell to Mpalomby – more so after his mother recently fell ill. At times, that’s meant putting his dreams and personal aspirations – like participating in Relay X America, a bike ride across the country to raise money for cancer research – on hold, too. And though he longs to return to Congo to reconnect with the family he hasn’t seen in years, immigration complications currently prevent him from doing so.

Through everything, though, Mpalomby tries to maintain a positive attitude. “I know it will get better,” he says of his hardships. Not to mention, he credits his success – in school and in modeling – to the unique perspective his background offered him.

“People that are here take stuff for granted,” he says. “But I can look back at what I didn’t have and look at things that I have now and be more humble about it.”

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