Caroline Johnston Polisi is a UNICEF’s Next Generation Steering Committee member.
Disheartened by the lack of attention the situation in the Horn of Africa is receiving in the mainstream media, Elizabeth Yale and Emily Griset, Co-Chairs of Next Gen’s Program and Emergency Response Committee, invited Lisa Szarkowski, Vice President of Public Relations for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, for an informal discussion about the crisis.
|Emily Griset (l), Elizabeth Yale (r), and Lisa Szarkowski.
Lisa relayed her first-hand experiences in the field at the stabilization centers in Dabaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, and spoke candidly about her assessments, often stopping to take questions from the group. She noted that even as the rest of the world is finally beginning to recognize the severity of the situation, conditions are getting worse; she estimates that in the last 3 to 6 months, 1,300 to 1,400 people a day seek refuge in the camps, which were originally structured to accommodate 90,000 people and now hold over 400,000.
Lisa talked about her frustration with a situation that she feels could have been greatly mitigated had the media and other humanitarian outreach organizations listened to the alarm bells that UNICEF and others were ringing back in November. She shared personal stories about her interactions with residents of the stabilization centers, most of whom walked for months to make it there, and lost children to acute malnutrition along the way.
As a new mother, I was horrified and profoundly saddened by the photographs she showed of one young boy she met named Aiden. At three years old, the child weighed less than 7 pounds by the time he arrived at the camp. Aiden’s father had carried him, along with two other siblings, on his back during their 25 day trek. Aiden’s mother died along the way.
I was heartened to hear that UNICEF is focusing not only on children, but also on women – targeting therapeutic nutritional interventions for pregnant women and lactating mothers especially, in an effort both to alleviate and to prevent the acute malnutrition from which most of the children in the camps suffer.
Lisa works tirelessly to ensure that accurate information about the crisis is relayed. “Information is the lifeblood,” she told me. “What we’re working on now is labeling this a ‘Children’s Emergency. ‘ It’s not a food crisis, it’s a child welfare crisis.” She went on to note how UNICEF looks for ways to take every opportunity not only to stem the immediate crisis, but to make enduring impacts going forward.
Emily and Elizabeth’s goals for the evening were far exceeded. O’Neil Walker, a 27-year-old financial associate came to the event at the urging of a friend. He candidly admitted to me that he knew “absolutely nothing about what was going on” before arriving. “I was just caught up in my own business…and this situation wasn’t publicized heavily.” When I asked him what he would take away from the evening, he told me this: “Tonight made everything more real. I’m going to do some more reading and research to learn even more about what is going on and see how I can get involved. It was definitely an inspirational event.”
Like O’Neil, Kate Fullhart attended the talk with a friend.
The event was a tremendous success for UNICEF’s Next Generation, which constantly strives to educate a new group of young adult philanthropists to ensure that no child ever dies of a preventable cause again.