THERE’S THE JESSICA KAHAWATY THAT YOU THINK YOU KNOW – the jet-set, blow-dried version you see on the red carpet, runways and in magazines. And then there’s the human-rights lawyer, philanthropist, and charity worker, who devotes her time to humanitarian causes.
“I’ve always been involved in charity work. When I was young, my parents always told me I had a soft heart. If somebody was bullied, I would speak up for them, often getting into trouble as a result. At 17, I raised Dhs28,000 for a cancer charity. I guess I’ve never really looked back. I’ve worked with lots of causes, most recently Louis Vuitton x UNICEF’s philanthropy project with the refugees in Jordan and also the Breast Cancer Institute.”
Jessica has just landed from another special mission in Bangladesh with UNHCR, visiting the Rohingya refugees at the Kutupalong camp. “What touched me is there’s not much light shed on this, and what makes the situation unique is it’s an emergency of epic proportions,” she tells Grazia. “Since the violence erupted in Myanmar in August last year, some 646,000 have ﬂed to Bangladesh. Fifty-four per cent are children; a lot of them roaming around naked. They’ve lost families through the war or bad health and have no place to sleep. They don’t have any infrastructure; they have bamboo and plastic sheets and are trying to ﬁgure out how to make a home. People are working all around the camp, just trying to help each other.”
As a woman and Law graduate, Jessica has a unique perspective on the situation. “I’m not a practising lawyer, but what my education has given me is that I’m able to tell them about the rights that are being stripped away, and what I believe is systematic genocide. I want my followers to be aware.”
The basics are sadly still missing in the camps, with various charities buckling under the pressure, and new immigrants arriving every single day. There is a struggle to feed, clothe and water those who have ﬂed. UNHCR, the charity supporting the crisis, states, “This is the fastest-growing refugee emergency in the world today. We are working with the Bangladesh government and partners to respond to the massive humanitarian needs. Since August, UNHCR has airlifted 1,500 metric tonnes of emergency life-saving aid to Bangladesh – including blankets, plastic sheets, sleeping mats, tents, kitchen sets, jerry cans and buckets collectively valued at US$7.8 million.”
To make matters worse, diphtheria is spreading rapidly among Rohingya refugees. More than 110 suspected cases, including 6 deaths, have been clinically diagnosed by health ofﬁcials, including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC).
“These cases could be just the tip of the iceberg. This is a vulnerable population with low vaccination coverage, living in conditions that could be a breeding ground for infectious diseases like cholera, measles, rubella, and diphtheria,” said Dr Navaratnasamy Paranietharan, WHO (World Health Organisation) Representative to Bangladesh.
Jessica continues, “It’s the children who get to you. This baby was completely naked, he wasn’t old enough to walk, but was clinging onto a rope, surrounded by rubble and rocks. He was covered in green, from urine. I went to get a water bottle to clean him. He was crying and alone.”
Jessica also met with another family whose mother, Salama Hatu, escaped with her three children – her eldest son is eleven, middle is nine and youngest ﬁve – breaking her hip on the way and suffering from a high fever. They survived on dried food and attempted to eat the soft parts of a banana tree, but most of the time, they starved. When Jessica asked them about their hopes, Salama replied, “I want to send my children to school, and I also hope to get medical treatment to recover.”
Jessica explains, “There were so many other heartbreaking stories of the Rohingya people,” adding, “This is a universal cause, a crime against humanity and a crime we commit if we continue to live as silent bystanders.”