"It was a heartbreaking trip to Jordan" – Jessica Kahawaty on visiting a UNICEF camp with Louis Vuitton
A Middle East united
T he United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) are continuing to champion their philanthropic programme across the Middle East this year as the number of refugees rises. According to the UN over one million Syrians have been displaced and are currently seeking refuge in neighbouring Jordan, where this week, in aid of the UNICEF plight, Lebanese-Australian model, presenter and lawyer Jessica Kahawaty together with Louis Vuitton flew in to visit one such camp. Here Kahawaty speaks exclusively to Buro 24/7 Middle East about her time on the ground...
You've just been granted access to the UNICEF camp in Jordan. Describe your experience.
When Louis Vuitton told me that they had chosen me for this opportunity globally, I was so humbled and tried to imagine all that I would expect inside the camp. It was a mix of devastation and hope. Millions of children are displaced every year as a result of the Syrian war, which is entering its seventh year. They have lost their homes, belongings and are separated from their families. It was a heartbreaking trip to the Za'atari refugee camp which hosts over 79,500 Syrian refugees and I asked myself over and over why I deserve this free life they can only dream of living. I was also taken away by the positivity and smiles scattered on the children's faces. They lit up the extremely hot and arid surroundings with their innocent faces, colourful dresses and wide-eyed glares.
There is an upcoming generation of children that is making waves in the refugee camp. I visited a caravan inside the camp that is home to a family of seven. The only daughter, Omaima, was a breath of fresh air and encouragement for any human rights advocate. The 16-year-old is fighting arranged child marriage and giving talks in the camp to educate girls and their families about the detriments of early marriage. Her dream is to be an international human rights lawyer in a country that respects human dignity and human life. I can only hope she realises her dream. Then a classroom full of boys at Makani, a centre that provides informal education, psychosocial skills and life training, shouted loudly their professional dreams when I asked: "Pilot, doctor, policeman, firefighter," they said. A child is a child. UNICEF is there to preserve that innocence.
Louis Vuitton have a history of working with UNICEF. What does it mean to you to represent this next chapter in their collaboration?
It's an honour for me to be part of this incredible initiative by UNICEF and Louis Vuitton. Louis Vuitton were one of my first supporters in fashion four years ago and UNICEF is an organisation I have much admiration for. It has been a dream to be involved with them for a long time given that children's rights is a topic close to my heart. It's absolutely humbling to be chosen to speak for this cause globally.
Despite the horrors and suffering, there are many touching stories of children determined to pursue their hopes and dreams.
Hailing from Lebanon (and Australia), your roots are deeply etched in the Middle East. What are your thoughts on the situation in Jordan?
Jordan is an incredible country that is doing so much for the Syrian refugee crisis. The Jordanian people have opened up their homes and hearts for the Syrian people. The government, especially the health ministry, is working closely with organisations like UNICEF to help ameliorate the situation inside the camps and provide the refugees with basic medical needs and supplies. I have much respect and admiration for His Majesty King Abdullah II and Queen Rania who have fostered a deep sense of responsibility and accountability amongst the people to help their neighbours.
What are your thoughts on Louis Vuitton's philanthropic endeavours in general?
I have so much respect for businesses that engage in activities for the betterment of humanity especially causes that revolve around children. Louis Vuitton is a Maison that has been around since 1854 and only a business with a deep vision for the future can understand that it's crucial to support disadvantaged children and pave a brighter path.
What message would you hope to voice from this experience?
"These children have taught me so much — to continue smiling in the face of adversity, generosity in the sweet hand-made gifts they gave me, hard work and always to dream for a better future. They taught me to take each day at a time and to deal with my problems that may have once seemed so huge, in a more objective and loving manner."
In 2006, your family experienced the Lebanese civil war, tell us about that...
In 2006, I was studying in Sydney, Australia for my final grade 12 exams before being admitted into Law School whilst my mother and younger brother were in Lebanon for a short trip. They were unfortunately stuck there for several days when the war happened before the Australian government could send help to them and safely bring them back home.
Today, what is your mission in life?
My mission is to continue to empower young women to reach their full potential and advocate for the ones without a voice. I love using my position to shed light on global issues and I would love to one day speak even more publicly about certain topics that affect us all — lost children, famine and children who are ill.
What are the biggest misconceptions about the Middle East?
I believe that misconceptions stem from the fear of the unknown. Having a drastically different language, differences in religion from most countries in the West as well as news propaganda don't help but we should instead see the beauty in these differences and embrace the diversity and juxtaposition that lies between the Middle East and Western countries.
What's next for you?
I'm spending three months on and off in Sydney very soon where I'll be focusing a little on Australiasia and finishing an important component in my law degree which will hopefully soon allow me to be a Barrister. I doubt I will start practicing law but I love having it as a complement to all the philanthropic and professional work I that I do.
Now, discover another project Jessica Kahawaty is taking time to discuss.