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Philanthropy: part of showbiz’s DNA

Industry works hard to take care of its own

The general public seems to think showbiz people are shallow and self-absorbed. Frequently that’s true — let’s compare notes sometime! — but many individuals and companies are caring and generous. It’s hard to think of another industry that works so hard to take care of its own (MPTFund, Actors Fund, et al.) and that has so many orgs dedicated to helping others.

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. Most want to return home, but some have been at the camp for more than a decade.

One Ethiopian man reminded us that refugees have 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.”

Another refugee 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.

Despite the drop in malaria deaths in the past six years, it still kills one child every minute in Africa. But Nothing But Nets workers believe it can be eliminated by 2015. If we can land the Curiosity rover on Mars at a cost of $2.5 billion, surely we can accomplish this.

Nothing But Nets director Chris Helfrich said nets cost $10 each and have to be replaced every 3-5 years. Surprisingly, most of Nothing But Nets’ money comes from individual donations, rather than corporate.

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.

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 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 woodworking 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. A member of our team talked to a metalshop worker, who was grateful for the training but worried whether there will ever be opportunities to 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.”

There are people working to keep up the refugees’ spirits. Nothing But Nets’ Helfrich told me, “We’re delivering two things: nets and hope. We all need to work so we can provide more nets and more hope.”

For additional info, go to unfoundation.org

Want to comment or suggest a column topic? Email timothy.gray@variety.com

The annual philanthropy issue, starting on page 18, is a reminder that our readers are showbiz workers second, but human beings first. Charity is part of showbiz’s DNA. That’s why the Insiders page every Monday in Daily Variety includes news about philanthropy. That’s why we have the Variety Foundation, which in the past 5 1/2 years has generated more than $5 million in contributions to causes that the industry cares about.

In conjunction with today’s philanthropy issue, we are excerpting stories from the current weekly Variety. This includes a Q&A with Ted Turner on the 15th anniversary of his $1 billion pledge to the United Nations. Thanks to him and his team, the U.N. Foundation has distributed more than $1.8 billion to a number of causes.

Also in this issue are first-person accounts from Variety publisher Brian Gott and me about seeing the U.N. Foundation in action when we went to Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya near the border of South Sudan. It was sobering to see the enormous gap between the ultra-haves in showbiz and the extreme have-nots in Kakuma.

We were there as the U.N. Foundation’s Nothing But Nets project handed out its one millionth anti-malaria mosquito net. Since its 2006 launch, Nothing But Nets has worked with other orgs and has cut malaria fatalities nearly in half.

Statistics are terrific, but can’t convey the impact of seeing Nothing But Nets at work. Ten of us went to Kakuma and none 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 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 U.N.’s refugee agency) pointed out that none of the 10 North American visitors had ever experienced malaria, 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.”

This is an unusual issue for Daily Variety, but Kakuma was a reminder of our responsibilities. 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.”

We at Variety are using the forum we have — and we hope others will do the same.

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