“Please don’t turn away. Refugees are the most vulnerable people on Earth. Every day, they are fighting to survive. They deserve our respect. Please do not forget them. Remember them on this day. World Refugee Day.” — Angelina Jolie
This video is a public service announcement by Angelina Jolie for World Refugee Day 2009
Movie star Angelina Jolie and NBC news anchor Ann Curry joined hands with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and others at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. today, to mark World Refugee Day 2009.
Hosting this event has become something of a tradition for National Geographic. The Society has also backed the production of films, books, and articles that illustrate the sometines tragic, sometimes triumphant stories of refugees.
Jolie and Curry are among a number of high-profile celebrities who have lent their names to draw attention to refugees. They have traveled to refugee camps in a number of countries to see and hear firsthand the stories of people who have lost families, jobs, homes, and countries.
NGS photo of Angelina Jolie at National Geographic by Rebecca Hale
“Refugees have profoundly changed my life,” Jolie told the gathering at National Geographic today. “They have taught me what it is to be brave … to be a mother … to have strength of character.”
This next video is of Angelina Jolie at today’s event:
Jolie has been a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN High Commisioner for Refugees since 2001. Over the years she has visited nearly 30 refugee camps.
“There are millions of desperate families, so cut off from civilization that they don’t even know [World Refugee Day] exists,” Jolie told us.
A poignant touch at our meeting was a live Web link with refugee children in the Djabal camp in the eastern part of the central African country of Chad, one of 12 camps currently accommodating more than 250,000 refugees who have fled the violence in Darfur, in neighboring Sudan.
We waved at the children in Chad; they responded immediately with a big wave back. Two groups of humanity separated by an unfathomable gulf of distance and circumstances.
A 13-year-old boy who spoke for the group told us across cyberspace of his wishes for a change of government and the opportunity to leave Djabal and go home.
NGS photo of Ann Curry by Rebecca Hale
Ann Curry told us that the Djabal children had named their school after President Obama because they hoped and believed that the American leader was going to rescue them and enable them to go home.
It may not be possible for Obama to do that, but America, it turns out, does a fair amount for refugees, who, by the broadest definition of refugee, now number 42 million worldwide.
The U.S. is the most generous financial donor, funding a quarter of the UNHCR’s budget, and remains the largest settlement country for refugees, according to the U.S. State Department.
Generous as this is, it’s clearly not enough to deal with the world’s refugee crisis. Many people remain penned up in refugee camps more or less indefinitely. Even more chilling is the growing number of people displaced within their own countries, where they remain at the mercies of their governments and essentially out of reach of international assistance.
UNHCR Commissioner Guterres spoke of the “shrinking asylym space” for refugees. Security concerns since the terrorist attack on New York in 2001 have caused some governments to pull back from giving a home and a chance at a new life for refugees. “But refugees are not terrorists,” Guterres said, ” they need to be protected as the victims of terrorists.”
“This is a dangerous and changing world,” Guterres added. “One of the worrying trends is people’s inability to cross borders. It’s harder and harder for UNHCR to get access to them. The international community faces difficulties today – it is difficult to balance the sovereignty of states with the sovereignty of the human being. This is a huge challenge for us in UNHCR.”
Message from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on World Refugee Day
To illustrate this point, the gathering at National Geographic was addressed by former refugees from Bhutan, Khagendra and Ganga Baral. Forced to flee from their homeland when both were 13 years old, the Barals spent many years in refugee camps before being granted asylum in Arizona.
They spoke movingly of their desperation in the camps and their gratitude to America for giving them a home. But that was not the end of their struggle, they said, as they described how they had to look for jobs, a home, and medical coverage.
The willingness of the American people to assist with refugee camps and resettlement certainly is only part of the story. Families like the Barals depend utterly on assistance from charities and ordinary Americans when they arrive in their new country, they reminded us.
There are many people who are farmers, teachers, doctors, and engineers in the refugee camps, Angelina Jolie pointed out in her remarks. “Most of all, they are survivors … the most impressive people I have ever met.”
But refugees are also the world’s most vulnerable people, Jolie said.
NGS photo of Angelina Jolie by Rebecca Hale
Illustrating this point was the story of Rose Mapendo, who was at today’s Washington gathering to receive the Humanitarian of the Year Award.
Mapendo is a Tutsi who suffered dreadfully in the turmoil of the Congo/Rwanda region. She sobbed as she told how she and others were herded into captivity for 16 months, their husbands executed and their children dying of hunger before their eyes.
Her epic journey from that time to today, her courage and fortitude and how she now travels the world as a messenger of peace and forgiveness is to be the subject of a documentary, we heard.
Rose Mapendo receives the Humanitarian of the Year Award from UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres
NGS photo by Rebecca Hale
Few of us can imagine what it must have been like to walk in Mapendo’s shoes. Millions like her have been buffeted by the ill winds that sweep across the planet, is how Angelina Jolie described the plight of the world’s refugees.
View a trailer of the forthcoming documentary about Rose Mapendo
World Refugee Day is on Saturday, June 20.
Global events will include a concert at Washington’s Kennedy Centre by Congolese vocalist and bandleader Samba Mapangala, a football match between refugees in Australia, a musical performance by Kurdish refugees from Iran in northern Iraq and a film festival in Japan.
On Saturday, from 9am to 9pm EST in the United States (2pm to 2am GMT) a World Refugee Day Web site will feature live streams from Iraq, Pakistan, a refugee camp in Africa and a settlement for the displaced in Colombia.