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What Can the Fashion Industry Do About the Syrian Refugee Crisis?

Experts from UNICEF, Louis Vuitton and 'Business of Fashion' weigh in.
Lisa Szarkowski of UNICEF, Imran Amed of 'Business of Fashion' and Claudia Martinuzzi of Louis Vuitton.  Photo: Carl Timpone for Louis Vuitton/BFA

Lisa Szarkowski of UNICEF, Imran Amed of 'Business of Fashion' and Claudia Martinuzzi of Louis Vuitton.  Photo: Carl Timpone for Louis Vuitton/BFA

The relationship between the fashion world and the fight for social justice has always been a fairly complex one. On the one hand, fashion as an industry has an embarrassing track record when it comes to the human rights of the people (often women, often poor) who manufacture clothing. On the other, fashion's ability to inspire — and make serious money — means that fashion brands can be valuable partners to nonprofits and NGOs that need visibility and funding.

The latter dynamic was on display Thursday at a panel discussion about what the fashion community can do to address the Syrian refugee crisis. Headed up by UNICEF vice president of humanitarian emergencies and executive communications Lisa Szarkowski, Louis Vuitton intellectual property manager for internet enforcement Claudia Martinuzzi, and Business of Fashion editor-in-chief Imran Amed, the conversation took place before an audience of fashion and media professionals. Szarkowski began by communicating that the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis is not only the largest of our day, with over 4.5 million Syrians currently displaced, but that it's also involved unprecedented levels of violence directed specifically at children.

"Not that any war is clean, but there used to be some rules," she said. "Humanitarian workers, for example, were considered safe, and so were children, and so were women," she said. "But those rules are just gone." She shared stories of children in settlement camps who were dealing with the trauma of watching their parents be executed in front of them, noting, "it’s extraordinary the way children are being targeted."

Martinuzzi, who has visited settlement camps in Lebanon on behalf of Louis Vuitton, stressed the massive impact that the conflict has had on the children she met there — but also highlighted the remarkable impulse toward life she saw them display. "They're like children everywhere," she explained. "They just want to play and be educated and someday return home." Both Szarkowski and Martinuzzi expressed that these children's dreams to return to Syria and "make things better" by becoming doctors and teachers are what gives them hope in the face of devastating circumstances. "Children are incredibly resilient," Szarkowski said.

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So what do they suggest the fashion industry do to help these children and all the others impacted by the conflict? Perhaps the most obvious answer is to offer financial support. Direct donations to UNICEF or similar organizations are always welcome, and were put forth as the best way to support the organization's efforts. But for the fashion-inclined, another way to give can come via shopping for products like Louis Vuitton's special edition #MAKEAPROMISE jewelry, which benefits UNICEF with a donation made for every purchase. Whichever avenue it takes, the affluence of the fashion community can be leveraged to provide resources for the organizations best equipped to help those in need. To that end, attendees were invited to shop in the Louis Vuitton store at a UNICEF fundraising event hosted by Man Repeller's Leandra Medine, Spring Street Social Society's Patrick Janelle and UNICEF Next Generation Chair Nell Diamond after the panel discussion.

Another course of action the panelists suggested was that the audience use their voices and platforms to keep the crisis in the public consciousness. "It can be easy to get caught up in our own little bubble, whether that's a Trump bubble or a fashion bubble or whatever," Amed said. "But it's important to keep aware of what's happening in other parts of the world and keep it a part of the conversation." Szarkowski noted that anything the fashion media can do to "cut through the noise" and raise awareness — whether through coverage on their outlets or even on their personal social media channels — is greatly appreciated by those in the trenches.

Lastly, Szarkowski encouraged individuals to get personally involved with refugees right here in the U.S. "There's a big population of displaced Syrians right next to us in Jersey City," she noted. Volunteer opportunities are available through UNICEF and other local organizations that welcome families seeking asylum in the U.S. "Hire refugees, seek them out, befriend them," she urged. "These kids... are the ones who have to come back and help rebuild their country," she said. "If we don't invest in them, then that’s not going to be a resource in the future."

For more information on how to donate or volunteer with UNICEF's Syrian refugee-focused programs, visit their website.

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