USA for UNHCR Gala Trains Spotlight Squarely on Refugees

Posted by Roberta Elliott on Wed, Nov 16, 2011 at 15:15 pm

Juju Chang and Eugenie Mukeshimana

ABC Nightline correspondent Juju Chang and Eugenie Mukeshimana, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and founder of Genocide Survivors Support Network

If an invitation to a gala stipulates “global chic” as the preferred dress, you know you’re in for a good time… And that was exactly the scenario at last night’s USA for UNHCR’s 60th anniversary celebration at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. We’re not sure we’ve ever seen such an elegant mix of former refugees and their sponsors!

The preferred area of the globe for dress was clearly Africa, starting with ABC Nightline correspondent Juju Chang, who wore a dress she bought last week while on assignment in Mozambique. “I took a look in my closet and said to myself ‘If I don’t wear this dress tonight, then I’ll never wear it!’” Chang, one of the evening’s three honorees, was introduced by her husband, Neil Shapiro, president & CEO of WNET. Born in Korea, she came with her parents to this country as a refugee in 1969.

Samite Mulondo and Eugenie MukeshimanaOthers, like Eugenie Mukeshimana, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and founder of Genocide Survivors Support Network, were also in festive African dress. Eugenie was resplendent in yards of red silk that she had sewn herself into a native Rwandan evening dress. But, no one was more elegant than supermodel Alek Wek, a refugee from South Sudan, who regaled the audience with her memories of her pre-super model years in South Sudan and then in London, where she was discovered at the age of 15. She told the audience: “The most humbling thing that’s been given to me is my voice – to help make change.” This from someone who is arguably one of the world’s most beautiful women.


Above: World renowned musician Samite Mulondo and Eugenie Mukeshimana; Right: Refugee pin distributed at the gala

Refugee pin

And speaking of beautiful women, sadly nowhere to be seen was Angelina Jolie, for more than a decade UNHCR’s Goodwill Ambassador.

Master of Ceremonies was National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths, who has gone around the world documenting lives of refugees. Also honored were M. Farooq Kathwari, Chairman, President & CEO of Ethan Allen Interiors, who is a refugee from Kashmir, and Jack Leslie, chairman of Weber Shandwick. The evening’s entertainment was provided by world renowned musician, Samite Mulondo, who fled Uganda for fear of his life. Today he lives in Ithaca, NY, where he joked with the audience that everyone is a vegetarian, including the pets.

The evening was a tribute to USA for UNHCR’s ability to honor refugees. It was impossible to circulate for more than a few minutes without engaging in meaningful conversations about being a refugee. Nour Al-Khal, a refugee from Basra, Iraq, was there with a friend from Baghdad. My colleague, Elissa Mittman, met a refugee who fled Gambia, the smallest country in Africa, and was resettled in the smallest state, Rhode Island. We also spoke with Igor Kotler and know that Jane Ginns was there enjoying herself – both refugees brought to the U.S. by HIAS. We all rubbed shoulders with Alex Aleinikoff, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees; George Okoth-Obbo, Director of the UNHCR’s Regional Bureau for Africa; and Michel Gabaudan, former U.S. Representative of UNHCR.

In the end, Juju Chang delivered the best line of the night: “The U.S. is not just a nation of immigrants, but a nation of refugees.”

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