UN Foundation, UNF's Nothing But Nets bring campaign to Cannes

Life is often absurd, which explains how I went directly from a refugee camp near the South Sudan border to the Cannes Film Festival.

Variety publisher Brian Gott and I were part of a 10-person team organized by the UN Foundation and UNF’s Nothing But Nets anti-malaria campaign to visit Kakuma, a remote area of Kenya. We were there to distribute life-saving mosquito nets, which protect sleeping children from the disease-carrying insects.

I’m pretty sure I was the only person out of 94,000 in the camp who had a tuxedo on hand.

I also suspect I was the only festival-goer who measured every expenditure in terms of malaria: $10 for coffee and croissant (That’s one net! That’s one life that could be saved!) And I hope I’m the only one in Cannes having bad dreams and bursting into tears while brushing my teeth. (It’s possible others had those reactions, but for different reasons.)

It would be easy to make cheap comparisons: Kakuma, serious; Cannes, frivolous. But in fact, it’s not so clear-cut. Both areas are filled with people harboring genuine concerns; the difference — and it’s a key one — is in the degree of those concerns.

As we traveled around Kakuma, for example, refugees (especially kids) turned into big hams as soon as they saw a camera.

In other words, it’s the same as in Cannes!

Our group (spearheaded by UNF’s Elizabeth Gore) was told by one camp worker, “These refugees want to contribute, they want to work, but they’ve been through so much, they live in fear.”

The same as in Cannes!

As we drove around in UN vehicles, people lined the dusty streets to peer into the car, wave or applaud, or all three.

Just like Cannes!

We were treated like celebrities, because the refugees know their lives would be even bleaker without orgs like UNF, Nothing But Nets and UNHCR, the agency specializing in refugees.

There are a lot of worthwhile charity functions at Cannes and at home, so why should anyone care about this one? Two reasons:

One, a solution is possible. Since 2006 (when Nothing But Nets was founded), the infant mortality rate from malaria has been nearly halved, but a child still dies every minute in Africa. The disease can be eliminated worldwide by 2015, however.

With that in mind, Nothing But Nets aims to raise $1 million in the next few months, as the rainy season begins. The group, under Chris Helfrich, is halfway to its goal, but time is essential.

Second, unlike victims served by some other charities, these people literally have no hope. Nobody chooses to be a refugee. They can’t return to their homeland, careers and normal lives because of circumstances beyond their control. The reason is often violence and war — and the Sudan-South Sudan conflict has increased the number of refugees.

In Kakuma, they live with brutal heat and rain, disease (one-fifth of the camp had malaria last year) and meager rationing of food and water. As one official told us, “Refugees would love to have your problems.”

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

On our trip, photographer Michael Muller donated his time to record our journey. Residents would ask to be photographed and then laugh with delight as they saw the result.

“A lot of those people feel invisible,” Muller said later. “So they want to see that they’re alive and they exist.”

Again, showbiz folk have those same impulses, but the intensity of those needs is obviously different. And while showbiz dreams are often thwarted, there’s always hope.

Kakuma provides a reminder that the entertainment industry has dual mandates: to entertain and to improve.

A makeshift theater in Kakuma was showing “The Expendables.” A restaurant — yes, some refugees are enterprising — boasted Britney Spears and J-Lo posters while Janet Jackson songs played. Like humans everywhere, refugees need diversion, they need fun.

The second, more concrete showbiz role is to bring awareness — and funds. God bless Angelina Jolie, who has established a school in Kakuma. But the needs are enormous.

Brian Gott and I will be writing more about Kakuma and Nothing But Nets in our July Philanthropy Issue. Meanwhile, my request to those of you enjoying the perks of being in Cannes or those of you reading about the busy festival scene. Put down those croissants and buy some nets!

After a few days in Kenya, my body was exhausted and my senses overloaded. And I thought, “It will be nice to get to Cannes so I can relax.”

To anyone familiar with the frenzy of the fest, though, that’s a bizarre concept.

But, as I said earlier, life is often absurd.For more info, go to NothingButNets.net

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