Refugees on the Runway

His name is Sami, but he prefers to be called Sam.  He’s 12, his dream is to be a model and fashion star, he loves clothes and fabrics very much, and he wants his friends to understand that “even men can be models!!”  Remember Sam very well, because I will return to him later.

Dubai hosts Project Runway Middle East that was launched on September 4, 2016 “in a glitzy and glamorous affair at Dubai Design District.“ The show judges are the  world-renowned Lebanese designer Elie Saab and Tunisian fashion icon Afef Jnifen, and it is hosted by Jessica Kahawati. The Middle East version is the result of partnership between Elie Saab and MBC Group; therefore I would leave it to you to imagine the figures spent on this show.

On its episode last week, Project Runway Middle East pushed its challenges further than anyone thought they would go as challenge of the week was “to make a sustainable garment for Syrian refugees residing in a camp in Lebanon.”  12 Garments were designed by the contestants as a “humanitarian initiative”. The guest of that episode was the Lebanese popstar Nanacy Ajram who accompanied the designers in their visit to the camp. In a video posted on MBC website, Jessica Kahawati speaks to the kids telling them that they “can be whatever they want to be” and taking a promise from them never to smoke again, and in the end distributing some food to a crowd of kids with worn out clothes as cameras capture those moments which “would never be forgotten” as she says.  We  see the designers talking to refugees, asking them about how cold they feel in winter maybe, or seeing if they prefer a certain fabric or shade of blue maybe trying with all their might to truly understand the suffering of living in such a place. To be honest, their attempts to feel that pain can be clearly seen on their faces.

Back into the studio Hiba explains how her design “would serve both men and women, it comes with a piece that could be used as a scarf for men or headscarf for women” because “in that place all women cover their heads”. Leila Abdulla, the co-host, praises her choice of colours, fabric and the double-face design. They discuss it as if it was the wedding dress or a design for some big event evert, not for someone who awaits winter now like the prisoner awaits the next round of torture as he hears the steps of the jailor coming down the corridor.

One of the designers talks about his project saying that “it will give them so much confidence and strength”, another designer goes: “mine the only one that protects refugees and keeps them warm”. Obscene is the reality we live now, were people talk about someone’s pain as if it was a headache which would stop with a Panadol followed by a sip of water.

Refugees will enjoy a warm winter thanks to Muhannad!

As the test day came, contestants sat with their eyes following every move on the runway,feeling nervous with every blink from the judges. The models start to come out, one by one, with high heels, super fashionable boots, make up and perfect hairstyle. Watching them, I tried to picture those people from the camp, walking down the runway, with their shabby dresses, messy hair, and skin darkened by the sun (as media shows them all the time) It is still incomprehensible for me how bringing joy to someone cannot be fulfilled without a set of cameras that do nothing but remind that person that he is in need, and will always be in need because may benefit from his misery.

Winner of that challenge was Mohanad Kojak, who celebrated his success by distributing 2000 garments with Afef Jnifen, with the startling comments that “refugees will be warmer this year.”

11When you do not try to save those people’s dignity, you are not doing charity, you are dehumanizing them, treating them as objects in cages for show. The degeneration to which begging over the refugees’ issue has exceeded all moral limits, and sadly enough, in some cases some refugees are the reason behind such obscenity. Using refugees for marketing, social show off, political interests, and prestige through “charity work” is not humanitarian, it is undignified, disrespectful, and immoral. This is not how you empower people, this is not how you protect them and make them stronger.

Millions are spent on such programs; would it not be better to use that money to make schools for children of those camps? or even give them proper housing? or protect them from sexual abuse? or maybe attempt to stop they reason why they are refugees in the first place?

As a child, I remember seeing commercials on famines in Africa, showing children with skinny faces, suffering in their eyes, and flies covering their bodies as they lie helpless from hunger and diseases, I always asked myself, why not take those children to a school or to hospital instead of spending all that money on travelling all the way from Europe or America to film this commercial? That was the naive thinking of a child. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I still have that childish thinking, although I understand the game of media and marketing and the showbiz now.

Talking how this “drew a smile on their faces” and that American soap opera does not touch me personally, what touches me is doing the impossible to protect people’s dignity. Sam will never be what he wants to be as all the visitors tell him, and this is not pessimism, it is realism. Sam is a fictional character, but his dream is real. Only authentic and respectful efforts will never make him a real character.

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