When videos of celebrities throwing buckets of ice-cold water over their heads went viral in June of 2014 in aid of motor neuron disease association ALS, it pinpointed the power of putting a ‘name’ behind a charity. As everyone from Jennifer Aniston, Gwen Stefani, Victoria Beckham and Rihanna splashed out, over Dhs368 million poured in.
Skip forward just five months and there was a new fundraising fad making headlines, the #WakeUpCall selfie for Unicef, with a fresh slew of celebrities caught up in the social media maelstrom lending their high-net-worth profiles to highly-important causes.
While charitable campaigns such as these aren’t specific to a 21st century phenomenon, as celebrities have been benevolent for decades, what this digital age is teaching us is how quick these online crazes become outdated. Yesterday it was the #NoMakeUpSelfie for Breast Cancer, today the #WakeUpCall for Unicef, tomorrow... who knows? The point is that, in this fast-paced social media millennium, philanthropy is fleeting.
While there’s no doubt that people benefit greatly from the good generated out of these celeb-endorsed donation drives, what happens when the cameras switch off, the hashtags become homeless, and internet interest shifts elsewhere?
The answer is to invest in a bricks and mortar cause that transcends social media infatuations, something that doesn’t solely rely on the reaction of the public, yet lays roots and builds an idea from the ground up. The future of fostering a charity with longevity is to give up your time not just your title for a cause: selflessness over selfies, shall we say.
While Angelina Jolie, Christy Turlington, Beyoncé and Gisele are some of this generation’s most active altruists, each with their own initiatives and social-conscience spirit, few have as much devotion and commitment as Italian-Egyptian model, Elisa Sednaoui Dellal. Like fellow model Natalia Vodianova before Elisa, with her Russia-based Naked Heart Foundation, 28-year-old Elisa turns homeward for her humanitarian interests, founding her Luxor-based Elisa Sednaoui Foundation (ESF) in 2013. The bottom-line of the organisation is to create after-school, extracurricular programmes and workshops in art, music and culture for children in rural Egypt, and eventually in Italy and elsewhere, to help create “agents of change” in the next generation by allowing youngsters the room to “learn, play, dream and have fun” and, therefore, become masters of their own destiny.
Far from a flash-in-the-pan fundraising initiative, Elisa’s cause has legs and she wants it to run, far. It’s not about ploughing money into something one day, then walking away from it the next... It’s about fostering relationships with the youth of today, broadening their perspectives, and helping them shape the future of tomorrow.
“My dream has been to launch a cultural centre where children can learn values like equality, listening when others speak and empowerment of women,” she explains over the phone, mid-boarding a plane from London to Luxor.
Understanding that the next generation is what the future of our planet will rely on, for Elisa the best gift one can give them is education; teaching equality in race, religion, culture, as well as equality between boys and girls; to promote tolerance and acceptance; and to help them learn that one has to “act with others the way you want them to act with you.” It’s a golden life rule that she is already instilling in her son, Jack, and a premise that continues to fuel her work with ESF, in proactively bringing about change in a world that her son will grow up in.
While modelling for Chanel, Armani and Cavalli in Paris or Milan from the age of 18 may be a far cry from the work she does in Luxor, the catwalks and campaigns have afforded her the luxury of a bank balance that helps bank roll her passion project of ESF. As she says, she is more than just a coat hanger, and she has the money, mindset and acumen to create something both valuable and long-lasting.
The fact that Elisa began her philanthropic project in Luxor is because, despite growing up between Paris, Egypt, Italy and London, she feels as if she belongs in the Middle East.
“Sednaoui is originally Syrian and it means ‘coming from Sednaya’, which is a village near Damascus.” Her ancestors were textile merchants who moved to and settled in Egypt in the 19th century, where they later founded the ‘Sednaoui’ department stores in Cairo and Alexandria in the early 1900s, inspired by Galeries Lafayette in France. “My father still lives in Egypt and I do feel Middle Eastern in my habits and the way I look at life, in terms of family, community, nature and spirituality,” she adds.
With that in mind, one of the key goals of her foundation is to enhance national identity and to help champion the growing connection between the East and West. She considers herself a “citizen of the world”, and, after a childhood spent dreaming of becoming a “cultural attaché”, promoting the people and culture of the Middle East is paramount.
“Part of what I want to do with my ESF work, alongside a documentary film I’m making, is to humanise Egypt, to let people speak for themselves, and to rectify the misconception of women and tackle the prejudice and ideas of submissiveness that the world has of Arab Muslim women. There are many layers and I don’t think it’s black or white, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on equality; and I prefer to say equality not freedom as they are different things."
Currently dividing her time between London and Luxor, the model respects the diversity of this region, and the need to protect its traditions whilst harnessing the power of change. “I’m not a political analyst, I don’t have the arrogance to call myself that, but I sense in my career that things are changing and I think that women in the Middle East are empowering themselves more everyday. I was so happy in Dubai to see and admire all these stylish Arab women; there is strength, there is passion, a sense of humour, a sense of elegance and modesty, and a great ability to be mothers and run houses, and that’s so important. The moment you’re married, that’s such a big part of your life, being a good wife and supporting your husband, and I think the West has misconceptions about that because women are so pressured about their career. I’m not saying women in the Middle East don’t have careers because more and more I see women, like Princess Deena of Saudi to all the women in the Emirates, start businesses or philanthropy projects, I just think that women are appreciated more in the East than in the West if they decide to just be at home and run the house, and that’s a good thing.”
The children that will grow up to be these women have a bright future with Elisa championing their progression. The workshops (the first of which was held in April in Cairo, funded by an auction with pieces donated from Chanel, Christian Louboutin, Missoni and Armani), she says, are a concrete way of “seeing the possibilities that one has,” and teach the girls that the world belongs to them, it’s just up to each individual what they decide to do with it. “I just want to hear more and more about Arab women succeeding in making their dreams a reality. The voice of the Middle Eastern woman needs to be heard more and more and thanks to the Arab Spring, whether it has succeeded or not to implement the things they wanted politically, it has attracted a lot of attention to Arab countries and Arab women. I would like to see them continue to study and cultivate themselves; for their characteristics and qualities to be more visible to the world; for more Arab women to represent Arab countries everywhere; and for them to follow their ambition and be who they want to be.”
While Elisa might not cite cultural attaché on her CV quite yet, she is leading by example and helping to provide a sense of unity and hope in her young charges, by showing ambition in someone from their own culture and nationality who is succeeding in what they want to do.
Listing powerful, forward-thinkers Queen Rania, Deena Abdulaziz, Egyptian social entrepreneur and political activist Soraya Bahgat, and her own stepmother as her revolutionary icons, what Elisa admires most, she explains, “is their strength and vision, their passion to do their best. They have an elegance that’s never vulgar, always refined, and a strength and ability to express and trust their opinions, feelings, visions...”
Evidently, she is proud of her birthright and the cultural identity it brings. “I am... although it’s going to take a long time to change [things in Egypt], I’m proud of what is happening and how much has changed already. The fact that now young girls can have political opinions different to their father, that they read and are going to university...I would just like for them to really have the choice to work if they wanted to work. But I love my country. There’s something about the sound of the language, the food and the mixture of spices, dust and desert in the air... Also the spirituality and understanding that there’s something bigger than us, and the strong sense of family values... I feel it on an instinctive level.”
It's clear that Elisa’s project is here for the long-haul. “I want the children [of Egypt] to be active members of their community and to have the opportunity to make their country what they want it to be, for them to understand equality and acceptance,” she concludes. “The most important thing is to continue to open lines of communication, and thankfully with social media that is happening."
In celebration of Elisa’s impending future in which the next generation of Middle Eastern girls help rule the world, and in honour of the new humanitarian hashtags doing the rounds, let’s start one right here... #TheFutureIsBright.
This article originally appeared in the November 2014 edition of Harper's Bazaar Arabia.