On Friday, Jan. 31, Mona Davis opened her beautiful home in Sands Point for a cocktail evening and an opportunity for guests to meet actress Julia Ormond and film producer Caroline Baron. Ormond and Baron are co-chairs of FilmAid International (FAI), the non-profit organization whose incredible work with international refugees is finally attracting the media attention it deserves, including being featured at the 2002 Golden Globe Awards. But the publicity itself is not enough and it is at events such as the cocktail party at Davis' home, where the all-important funds are raised.
FAI has a list of celebrity supporters that include Paul Newman, Robert DeNiro, Susan Sarandon, Whoopi Goldberg and Goldie Hawn but it is the hard work and generous donations of local supporters that made the fundraiser at Davis' house a roaring success. Joan Smith, Allen Fishkind and Lee Anne Vetrone-Timothy helped coordinate the extravaganza of delightful food and musical entertainment from Broadway. Executive chef, William Calbo and assistant chef, GianCarlo Cavallo of Middle Bay Country club prepared the sumptuous food and their friends volunteered as servers. Mrs. Yamaguchi delivered a delicious plate of sushi and Mark Spiegel from Mark of Excellence in Port Washington supplied an abundance of spectacular desserts. Additional space for the guests came form Nassau Tents who provided a marquee and heaters and Calbo's suppliers and Middle Bay Country Club donated food and other ingredients for the evening's feast.
While guests were served hors d'oeuvres they chatted to Ormond and Baron and learned about the plight of refugees around the world and the very important work of FilmAid. Throughout the evening a big screen, supplemented by smaller television sets around the house, flickered with images of FilmAid's work in the refugee camps and highlighted some of the devastating statistics about refugees. There are more than 30 million refugees worldwide, of those 50 percent are under 18 years of age and less than one percent of all refugees will be offered sanctuary by accommodating countries. Baron, Ormond and Deborah DeWinter, Executive Director of FAI and a Port Washington resident, made an eloquent presentation highlighting the incredible difference FilmAid makes in the life of refugees and the desperate need for funds to ensure the work can continue.
Baron, who grew up on Long Island and has family ties to Port Washington, started FilmAid in 1999 after hearing a radio report about the hardships and soul-destroying monotony of life in refugee camps in Macedonia. Baron believed that movies would help the refugees by offering a distraction from their horrific experiences and the misery of refugee life. Within six weeks Baron and a crew of volunteers had a mobile film unit in Macedonia showing movies to more than 4,000 Kosovar refugees a night. The screenings achieved more than even Baron had envisioned. As well as alleviating despair and psychological trauma, the screenings reached thousands of people with life-saving messages about health and safety including warnings about landmines. And because the screenings were open to everyone they provided a rare opportunity for warring factions to meet and to some degree reconcile their differences. These communications were essential for refugees not just during their time in the camps but also in preparing them for the return home. Asked what she believes is one of the most important things FilmAid has achieved, Baron said, "FilmAid has changed the attitude in the camps collectively and has changed everyone." She is often asked to defend the validity of using funds for films and health warnings when refugees are struggling for basics such as food and water. She said, "Refugees' needs are not an either/or situation. Films help them fight the hunger of their minds which occurs when people receive no outside stimulation."
By the end of the Macedonian project, FAI had attracted the attention of important organizations including the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They asked Baron if she would consider extending her work to Africa, where some refugees have lived in limbo in refugee camps for more than 10 years. FAI arrived in Kakuma, Kenya with plans to stay for six months before moving operations to camps in Tanzania but the Kakuma project received such an overwhelming response from refugees, their leaders and other aid agencies working in the camps, that the FilmAid team knew they had to find a way to continue their work there. Today FilmAid is working in Kenya and Tanzania simultaneously but it requires a constant juggling act of their funds and other resources.
Lack of funds has forced Film Aid to keep their work in Tanzania on a narrow focus targeting the areas where they can make the most impact such as health issues especially HIV / AIDS. Even so, on Jan. 31, the Tanzanian project was on the brink of closure, and the FilmAid team looked on with a mixture of pride and despair as an incredible 22,000 and 27,000 people turned out to watch what they thought would be the last two screenings. At the eleventh hour, the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program made a pledge to FilmAid, which it is hoped will sustain the work in Tanzania for 12 months. But the future of the Kenyan project, despite running costs of only $17,000 a month, is much more precarious. Donations pledged at Mona Davis' party in Sands Point and another held the night before in Manhattan, will help extend FilmAid's work in Kenya until the end of May, after that the future is bleak unless more funds can be raised.
Ormond hopes that with FilmAid's unqualified successes in Kenya and Tanzania and the recognition from important agencies such as UNHCR, more doors will start to open. She said, "When FilmAid started, people had a problem writing a check to a film director and an actress." Ormond herself has received special recognition for her work on behalf of FilmAid International; on Jan. 28, in Davos, Switzerland, she received the World Economic Forum's Crystal Award, a prestigious award given to media figures who use their influence for humanitarian work.
One of the biggest challenges Ormond sees for FilmAid, is educating people who, having never experienced the devastation of war in their own countries, perceive refugees as pitiably hopeless people rather than people who have been made homeless through circumstances beyond their control. She said, "Some people think of refugees as "those people." We need to change their attitude, "those people" include doctors, lawyers and teachers." On a recent visit to a camp, Ormond saw for herself the challenges faced by the refugees. She said, "There are some children who have been born and raised in those camps and have had no experience of the outside world." When it came time to leave, Ormond was approached by a refugee who thanked her for everything FilmAid is doing and asked, "Please when you get home tell your people not to forget us." She said, "I didn't have the heart to tell him that most people won't forget you because they're not even aware you exist."
There are so many more refugees FilmAid could help if only the resources were available. The UNHCR is currently in dialogue with FilmAid in the hope FilmAid will be able to assist in a project to repatriate thousands of Angolans from Zambia. Baron headed an assessment mission to Afghanistan in 2002, where the Wizard of Oz drew laughter from street children, many of whom did not even understand the concept of singing and FilmAid hopes that in 2003 funds can be found to begin work in two camps in Afghanistan. Sadly the continuing conflicts around the world both disrupt the current work of FilmAid and create thousands more refugees who need their support. Referring to the threat of an American-Iraqi war DeWinter said, "We are braced for the worst, there is going to be a tremendous outflow of refugees. We may have to rethink the project in Afghanistan but we are open to helping in other areas."
The Sands Point fundraiser was a great success and a wonderful opportunity for people to support FilmAid at a local level. FilmAid has many more fun and innovative plans for future fundraisers. Later this year FilmAid is holding a special auction on E-Bay and on Sept. 24, they are hosting a preview performance of the new Broadway play, The Boy from Oz in which Hugh Jackman portrays Peter Allen, the Australian singer who died of Aids. With a list of supporters that reads like a Who's Who of Hollywood we can expect to hear more about FilmAid in the future and hopefully have some fun while supporting the very serious and important work they are doing around the world.
For more information about FilmAid please contact Deborah DeWinter at 212-253-1122 or visit their website at www.filmaidinternational.org