Program reveals everyday struggles of refugees

Photography by Michael Muller

Turner talks U.N., philanthropy | Conservation primary at Turner ranch | Charity Nets a gain in perspective | Despair a daily affair for refugees

A different P.O.V.

Anti-malaria nets, refugees — what do these have to do with the entertainment industry? Nothing and everything.

Fund-raisers, celebrity causes and corporate contributions are reminders that showbiz comes second, and we are first and foremost human beings.

Variety has a nonprofit Foundation for this reason, and in the past 5 1/2 years has generated more than $5 million in charitable contributions to causes that the industry cares about. And on Aug. 9, Daily Variety will run our annual Philanthropy Issue, spotlighting what companies are doing to help. Writing checks is one solution. Another is using the showbiz spotlight to remind the world that there are people living in extreme hardships who need our help.

In J.B. Priestley’s 1946 play “An Inspector Calls,” the protagonist berates characters who have been selfish and hurtful: “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.”

Variety publisher Brian Gott and I received huge reminders of this responsibility when we went to Kakuma. So we’re using the forum we have — and we hope others will do the same.

Timothy M. Gray

Nothing But Nets — a campaign of the Ted Turner-founded U.N. Foundation — boasts impressive numbers: The org has helped cut malaria fatalities nearly in half, having distributed 1 million mosquito nets in Africa, Asia and other stricken areas since its 2006 launch.

And while statistics are terrific, they can’t convey the full impact of seeing NBN in action. A few months ago, Variety publisher Brian Gott and I were part of a 10-person team that went to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, near the border of South Sudan. None of us knew exactly what to expect, but as one team member said during the stay, “My mind is being blown every step I take.”

Our group, led by the U.N. Foundation’s Elizabeth Gore, met with leaders representing the 13 nationalities at the camp, which is equipped for 90,000 people, but has already exceeded its limit.

Of the two dozen group leaders, all had suffered malaria at least once. Last year, one-fifth of the camp got the disease. There are more than 200 million cases worldwide every year. When Jeff Savage (from UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency) pointed out that none of the 10 North American visitors had ever experienced the disease, the group leaders gasped. They didn’t realize this was possible.

Some outsiders seem wary of refugees, but the throngs at Kakuma included business people, teachers and medical pros. As one man told us, “Don’t forget, Albert Einstein was a refugee.”

Nobody chooses refugee status. Most want to return home, but some have been at the camp for more than a decade. Everyone had been forced to leave their homelands because of natural catastrophes (e.g., drought), politics or war and violence. The troubles in Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan are increasing camp numbers daily.

Probably the most memorable person I met was a selfless woman named Muslima. She had been fleeing Somalia with her four young children when she came across a one-week-old baby crying beside his dead mother. So she brought him to the camp and was breast-feeding the newborn as well as her own 6-month-old. She was in a hospital ward dubbed the Sad Room by one UNHCR worker. The room was for children with malnutrition plus other diseases. While each of the children had doctors, mothers and visitors talking and cooing over them, I never saw one of the kids laugh or smile.

The camp is a mass of contradictions: mud huts and an Internet cafe; motorcycles and donkeys (though most people travel by foot); the “downtown” area looks like a set from the post-apocalyptic “Road Warrior,” yet some of the enterprising refugees have started shops, hair salons and restaurants.

One Ethiopian man reminded us that refugees are people with nowhere to turn. He spoke of his years at a university. “I had a dream,” he said, using the past tense. “I’m surviving. But it’s not my wish to be dependent on others for food, water and everything.”

A new arrival from Sudan showed us his mosquito net over the bed, but mentioned that he also had to deal with scorpions and snakes that had crawled into his makeshift home. Then he took out his cell phone(!) to show me photos.

Only 40% of kids go to school, and there are 5,000 children there with no parents.

Another contradiction: Many of the refugees had sad eyes, yet they were remarkably open, friendly and forward-thinking. Many were funny and eager to talk. We toured classrooms, such as a computer lab (where 700 had applied for the 90 openings, and where students walk up to 75 minutes each way to attend daily classes).

A few are being taught other skills, like woodwork and masonry. The plumbing and automotive repair workshops each had one female student. Do the guys ever give the women a hard time? “No, why would they?” asked a genuinely mystified Father Luke, head of the Don Bosco Center. “They are all here to learn.”

Kenya has donated the land, but won’t allow refugees to take paying jobs outside the camp. Bryant, a member of our team, talked to a metal shop worker, who was grateful for the training but worried whether there will be opportunities to ever use his new skills.

As one Ethiopian woman said, “We all have dreams for our children, but when you are a refugee, your dreams are broken.”

On our trek, Nothing But Nets director Chris Helfrich delivered the org’s 1 millionth net. The nets cost $10 each and have to be replaced every three to five years. Surprisingly, most of the NBN money comes from individual donations, rather than corporate.

Despite the drop in malaria deaths in the past six years, the disease still kills one child every minute in Africa. But NBN workers believes it can be eliminated by 2015. Good; let’s wipe it out, then move on to provide help in other areas.

“We’re delivering two things: nets and hope,” Helfrich told me. “We all need to work so we can provide more nets and more hope.”

For additional info, go to unfoundation.org

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