by Joanna Blaz, UNA-SNY YP Social and Economic Development Committee Director
Fashion models sprinkled a bit of nature into our concrete jungle Wednesday night. Each holding a leaf or flower, models from the sustainable clothing brand Susty walked the National Arts Club runway, their re-purposed shirts urging the audience to “recycle” and “live responsibly.” As some got to the end, they twirled a rose or carnation over their heads: a small symbol that we’re together in the effort to protect our planet.
The fashion show kicked off this year’s United Nations Association-Young Professionals annual Cocktail Event & Awards ceremony. Each of the guests reflected a few of the core issues that UNA-YP advocates: sustainability, international development and refugee aid.
Designer Maria Martonyi also took to the runway, as models showed off her “peace silk” tops and other looks from her sustainable line. Martonyi prides herself in using plant-based dyes on all her items, which she hand dyes herself locally in NYC.
As guests mingled over wine and cheese ravioli, another model, keynote speaker Meredith O’Connor, shared her own story. Although she’s a successful singer and United Nations advocate today, O’Connor struggled with bullying throughout her career. Even though she said she felt alone, she overcame the self-doubt. Her message to young professionals: “If you’re lucky enough to be different, never change.”
Dr. Azza Karam echoed the importance of using our differences for the greater good. As the Senior Adviser of the United Nations Population Fund, Karam is exposed to various cultures and religions, as she engages faith-based organizations to work together. “[Religion] shapes what we believe and how we behave,” Karam said, recounting her own Egyptian upbringing.
The UNA-YP Young Professional of the Year recipient also used his cultural background to create a rewarding career in public service. Chernor Bah became a refugee at 6 years old in war-torn Sierra Leone. Bah’s passion for his work started when he noticed the gender disadvantages and violence towards girls in Sierra Leone.
“I refuse to believe that life should be determined by your circumstances.” Bah now leads the Population Council’s programs to benefit Sierra Leonean girls, from co-founding the “Adolescent Girls Learning Circle” to educating those at risk for HIV. “What keeps us going is a belief that we are better and we can be better,” Bah said.
The second awards recipient of the evening also dedicates his time to improving the lives of refugees. The UNA-YP Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Erol Kekic is the Executive Director of Church World Service, a refugee agency with offices across 21 states. Kekic recalled the struggles his organization faced during the recent travel ban. He told the story of a Somali woman whom CWS was assisting. She arrived at the airport on the day of the Executive Order. She was eventually turned away and forced to return to the refugee camp. At eight months pregnant at the time of the ban, she later gave birth to a stateless child.
Kekic said 80% of refugees are women, children or disabled. He urged the audience to volunteer or keep supporting organizations such as the UNA.
As the evening came to a close and winners picked up their silent auction items, many reflected on the themes of the evening. Whether your passion is advocating for sustainability or assimilating refugees, one thing is clear: you are not alone.