With ebony skin, an easy smile, and deep, high cheekbones, Mari Malek is strikingly beautiful. But behind her chic look are harrowing stories of the struggle to survive – and a defiance to change the narrative on the way the world perceives refugees and addresses conflict.
Dressed in soft whites and black leather, the South Sudanese model and Kenneth Cole Courageous Class member is gracefully perched on a tall chair alongside noted CNN journalist Suzanne Malveaux in a packed room of Washington movers-and-shakers. Now a celebrated model, New York City DJ, and humanitarian, it is nearly impossible to picture that this elegant woman once made her way through the streets of Cairo tormented with spitting and other degradation alongside her mother, sisters, and fellow refugees. “In Sudan, my mother was a nurse – in Cairo she cleaned people’s homes.” Forced to cast aside her childhood and take care of her family in Egypt after fleeing Sudan during its civil war, Malek and her family eventually made their way to Newark, NJ with the United States as their new home.
Discovered as a model after pursuing school in Los Angeles (Malek says, “Education saved her”), the celebrity shared her personal story and commitment to supporting education for South-Sudanese at an event on the global refugee crisis in conjunction with White House Correspondents’ Dinner weekend. Held at the United Nations Foundation, the New Solutions to the Global Refugee Crisis event convened speakers and participants from across noted NGOs, businesses, the media, and millions more online from around the world. And, across twelve different speakers, hundreds of Tweets, and comments from the audience, one main consensus emerged: simply, refugees are human beings.
Here are the major themes and quotes from the New Solutions’ event:
What’s the data? Staggering and with bias, according to UNHCR’s Shelly Pitterman: “80% of refugees are women and children. What’s more, 65% of refugees are not living in camps. That means that they’re not sheltered in an isolated camp, and so are not easily accessible, and monitored.”
Where are we seeing successes? According to RefugePoint founder, Sasha Chanoff, it’s in a small country in sub-Saharan Africa: “Tanzania nationalized refugees. That’s a leading country that’s taking the initiative.”
Where are the challenges? A sobering comment from The Fund for Peace Executive Director J.J. Messner, “It’s not the refugees themselves that are creating this crisis. It’s the failure of policymakers to deal effectively with the challenge.”
What is the private sector’s role? “A refugee is no longer a refugee once they have a job,” says Ruma Bose, President of the Chobani Foundation and Tent.org. Boom.
How is the media addressing the crisis? Stephen Keppel, Univision’s VP for Social Good says, “People in media have a real responsibility to not play on fears that might be out there in the audience. It’s up to us to explain this to our audience and give the full picture.”
What are cutting-edge ways to make this crisis real and personal to people across the world? Grab your Google cardboard headset. Gabo Arora, United Nations Senior Advisor & Filmmaker, has found virtual reality incredibly effective in both raising donations for organizations like UNICEF and making this crisis personal: “Virtual reality really puts you in the story and puts you in the shoes of another person.”
How can you create action? “So many people are compassionate. Give them the opportunity to have a measurable impact,” says Josh Bennett, Executive Vice President at Show of Force.
Image: Suzanne Malveaux interviews Mari Malek at New Solutions – Changing the Paradigm Panel event at the United Nations Foundation in Washington DC, Friday, April 29, 2016. (Photo/Stuart Ramson for UN Foundation)