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What Fashion Can Do to Address the Crisis in Syria

At a panel discussion hosted by UNICEF partner Louis Vuitton and BoF on Thursday, the humanitarian organisation's Lisa Szarkowski explained how the country's tragic refugee crisis impacts million of children, and what individuals can do to help.
Lisa Szarkowski, Imran Amed and Claudia Martinuzzi | Source: Louis Vuitton/ – Carl Timpone
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — Fashion's most successful brands have long been great financial supporters of humanitarian causes, and Louis Vuitton's partnership with the United Nations' Children's Fund is no different. Last year, the luxury brand raised $2.5 million for the organisation.

Right now, UNICEF needs the support more than ever. In December 2016, the war in Syria escalated in an unfathomable and tragic way when violent bombardment trapped tens of thousands of innocent citizens in the city of Aleppo. The world watched as Syrians struggled to escape in the latest chapter of the conflict between Syrian government forces, rebel groups, the Islamic State and the international forces that support them.

Six years after war broke out during the Arab Spring, about 13.5 million people are left in need of life-saving assistance and more than 4.5 million Syrians are displaced all around the world. The result is the greatest refugee crisis of our time that has put children — over 2.2 million of which are refugees — in unprecedented danger.

“It’s a level of brutality that I’ve never seen and I don’t know that the world has ever seen,” said Lisa Szarkowski, vice president of humanitarian emergencies and executive communications for UNICEF’s Fund USA on Thursday night.

Szarkowski was joined by BoF’s Imran Amed, who moderated the discussion, and Louis Vuitton intellectual property manager for internet enforcement Claudia Martinuzzi, who visited refugee camps last year as part of the brand’s partnership with UNICEF. The panel conversation coincided with Louis Vuitton’s #MAKEAPROMISE Day, launched to raise funds for UNICEF at its 46 stores around the world.

In front of an audience that largely included those working in the fashion and media industries, Szarkowski laid out the harrowing circumstances of the Syrian crisis. “There used to be some rules of engagement. Humanitarian workers, for example, were considered safe, and so were children, and so were women," she said. "But those rules are just gone… It’s just extraordinary the way children are being targeted.”

Ensuring those rights outside of Syria’s war zones is also a massive challenge. “Unfortunately, having fled Syria doesn’t mean they are necessarily safe,” said Martinuzzi, who travelled to informal settlements in Lebanon across the border from Syria in June. She was surprised to find that volunteers were “teaching these kids how to identify violence and protect themselves” through games.

In the last year, UNICEF and partners have conducted 87 cross-border missions into Syria to bring aid to 1.9 million people in areas under siege and outside of government control. It now supports access to water and sanitation for 13.3 million people in the region and has brought educational materials to 3.2 million children.

One of those children is Fatima, a young girl living in a Lebanese settlement, and one of many children put to work after her parents were killed. “[Often] refugees can’t have jobs because that can take away jobs from the host community,” said Szarkowski. “The children become the ones who go out to work and they are working dangerous jobs.” In order to allow Fatima to go to school, UNICEF pays her step-brother the salary she would earn picking vegetables.

In addition to donating to UNICEF, Szarkowski encouraged the audience to use fashion’s influential platforms to keep awareness and attention on the Syrians both inside the country and far from home. “The kids we’re seeing here, and in any crisis, they are the ones who have to come back and help rebuild the country,” she said. “If we don’t invest in them, then that’s not going to be a resource in the future.”

Szarkowski also urged the audience make a personal connection with displaced Syrians in their communities — “Hire refugees, seek them out, befriend them” — and support the nine resettlement agencies that process refugee cases in the US and are short on resources.

After the panel, the audience headed downstairs to the brand's 5th Avenue store, where ManRepeller's Leandra Medine, Patrick Janelle, and UNICEF Next Generation Chair Nell Diamond hosted a celebratory fundraising event. For every purchase of Louis Vuitton's silver "Lockit" collection, the brand will donate $200.

"The privilege of power also comes with a moral responsibility to give back," Medine said. “This sort of partnership is the perfect example, similar to the way Meryl Streep took her opportunity to make a political statement at the Golden Globes, of an incredible proof of concept."

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