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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Social media star Jessica Kahawaty on using her influence to raise awareness of humanitarian issues

'I came to understand the plight of refugees when my parents began taking us to Lebanon every year. They immersed us in the Arab way of life'

Jessica Kahawaty on the red carpet at Cannes. Getty
Jessica Kahawaty on the red carpet at Cannes. Getty

When Lebanese-Australian social-media star Jessica Kahawaty was invited to host a Ted Talk last month, it felt like her efforts to use fashion to highlight humanitarian issues were starting to pay off. The overarching theme of the event, held at Sciences Po university in Menton, France, was Walls and Shadows, focusing on the Middle East – the preconceived and stereotypical walls found in the region, the shadows they create and how they can be overcome.

Soon after, the host of MBC’s Project Runway, who has spent time visiting several refugee camps, was at the Cannes Film Festival. While sharing her red-carpet looks on her Instagram page (she’s followed by 462,000 people), the 29-year-old also attended Fashion for Relief alongside spokesperson Naomi Campbell. The charity gala raised funds for the organisation, which is committed to helping impoverished and disadvantaged children. Kahawaty, then, isn’t your run-of-the-mill social media influencer; she tells us it’s a term she would prefer not to use to describe her profession.

What, in your opinion, is the role of today’s influencer?

Influencer is a very general term, which I prefer to use as an adjective rather than a profession. Everyone can influence, no matter what position they hold in life. Being a model, humanitarian and lawyer – although I’m not a practising lawyer – I hope to do the same with social media. I think it’s important for any person to make a positive difference, but having a reach, whether its online or on television, creates a greater social responsibility, especially when it comes to young girls. Social media is an incredibly powerful tool that can either be used negatively or in a positive light. I use it to educate my followers, introduce them to causes they might have not heard of, take them through the individual lives of sufferers and shine a light on topics that mainstream media may choose to overlook or alter. It’s about real human interactions.

Does the influencer landscape in the Middle East differ from other parts of the world?

The Middle East is known to have one of the highest engagement and exposure rates online and in social media per capita compared to the rest of the world. The Arab world is definitely more active, both in fashion and also in humanitarian issues – that is a topic close to home, both figuratively and geographically.

You’re a vocal detractor of slacktivism. How would you define this?

Slacktivism is about “thoughts and prayers”, and the things we do that make us think that we’ve made a difference, but haven’t. Activism is not just about raising money, even though that’s one component – it’s about engaging with an online community, sharing thoughts and ideas, and immersing oneself in the mission and goals of organisations that are making a difference. It’s about raising awareness and educating others, which is key to changing perceptions. And finally, it’s about encouraging one another to dedicate a portion of ourselves, either through volunteerism or through donations.

You are a model and a lawyer – how do you reconcile being dressed up for an event one moment and at a refugee camp the next? Is your audience open to both these messages?

First of all, while I’m not a practising lawyer, I use my law degree and the skills I’ve learnt to bring attention to those who need their voices amplified. Dressing up for an event is part of my work, which gives me the platform to gain a larger audience, to which I can send refugees’ crisis messages. It’s not about switching between roles, but about embracing the fact that I have been blessed with opportunities in the fashion world and am still continuing my philanthropic work. To be honest, I was sceptical at first about my audience receiving the harrowing stories of the refugees from my first trip to the Zaatari camp in Jordan, but I was pleasantly surprised that even a fashion audience and consumer is interested in educating themselves further and being exposed to the stories on the other side.

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Read more:

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Although you grew up in Australia, how does your Lebanese heritage shape your outlook – particularly when it comes to your activism?

Growing up in a somewhat sheltered home in Australia, I came to understand the plight of refugees when my parents began taking us to Lebanon every year. They immersed us in the Arab way of life, and introduced us to the concept of displaced children and the politics behind it. I recall having a desire from a young age to help, and knew that when I had the age, experience and, hopefully, power, I would.

You have visited several refugee camps. Can you tell us about these experiences?

Last year, I visited two refugee camps – I went to the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan with Unicef, and Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazaar [in Bangladesh] with the UNHCR, where the Rohingya refugees have fled. The experiences were definitely distressing both emotionally and physically – the people have gone through tragedies no human being should ever endure.

The Zaatari camp hosts 80,000 Syrian refugees who have fled the country over the last few years of war. Many have lost their homes, families and watched their health deteriorate. I learnt about their stories, hopes and dreams. I met many children and young adults with hope for a better future. I learnt that the highest ranking student in final school exams in Jordan is a refugee. I learnt that a young girl discovered an electrical safety mechanism for demountable housing, to prevent them from catching fire.

The Syrians are skilled, ambitious, talented and hard-working. Their hope is not money or special privileges. It’s going back home, seeing their families again, living their day-to-day routine. The average time a refugee spends in a camp is 19 years. They don’t want to be part of that statistic.

The Rohingya people’s stories shocked me to my core. Mass murders, rape, cold-blooded killings – a modern-day genocide. I saw children who have become the head of their households because both their parents have been killed; a mother, numb in expression and feeling, who watched her five children killed in front of her; an elderly lady who ran for 15 days in the jungle with scarcely any food. These are the stories, and I’ve learnt over time that it’s important to be objective to find out what they need, and report that message as best as possible to those outside the walls of the camp.

You were also part of the Louis Vuitton and Unicef campaign. How did that happen?

I have shot a few editorials and covers with Louis Vuitton, and attended fashion week with them. They were aware of my humanitarian work, so thought of me to front the Make a Promise campaign with Unicef to raise money for Syrian refugees. As you can imagine, I was so happy and honoured to take on this project – it merged my two worlds. And this campaign reiterates my point about being in fashion one day and in a refugee camp another. After the success of this campaign, in terms of fund-raising and awareness, I was asked by the UNHCR if I was interested in going to Bangladesh for the Rohingya crisis, which was in emergency status, meaning refugees were still arriving in the thousands every day. Of course I agreed.

Do you think your scope to help is limited or enhanced because you are an influencer? Would you consider becoming a human-rights lawyer full-time?

There are many ways to advocate – you don’t have to be a lawyer, a philanthropist or have billions of dollars to help. You just have to have empathy. I haven’t thought of practising law full-time – I enjoy my career and love the fact that I am able to speak on humanitarian issues, too. The scope to help varies in both. Humanitarian lawyers may not help in specifically bringing awareness to an audience or directly raising money, but they are making a huge difference in lives, societies, ethnicities. Take Amal Clooney for example: an incredible barrister who has represented prime ministers and journalists, fought extraditions and advised on sensitive inquiries. Her work in the human-rights sphere is incredibly inspiring, and while I may not strive to actively pursue law, it’s still nevertheless essential to spread awareness about such causes. That being said, if I was given an ultimatum and asked would you choose between being in fashion or being a humanitarian lawyer, I would say the latter.