DAR ES SALAAM, 4 Apr 2003 (IRIN) - The actress Angelina Jolie, the Goodwill Ambassador for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has made her second visit to Lugufu refugee camp in western Tanzania. The sprawling camp houses some 85,000 Congolese refugees. Part of Jolie's mission in March was to make a film for the UN on a day in the life of a refugee child. In an interview, she talked to IRIN about her work and experiences with refugees.
QUESTION: What made you become interested in working with refugees?
ANSWER: I have always been curious about the UN, and so I got a book and sat up one night reading about the different chapters of the UN and stopped on the refugee section. I learned what a refugee was, that 20 million people around the world were refugees, and how 50 percent of these refugees were under 18. I wanted to find out how I had gone my whole life without learning about this or hearing much about it on the news, so I called UNHCR in Washington. I think they thought I was completely insane, but I asked if I could come and visit and begin to learn. So I did - and then we decided that I should go on mission to find out more about it. I went to Sierra Leone, some two and a half years ago now, but my first two trips were kept out of the public [eye] because I wanted to make sure that I supported and understood the organisation fully. Then a year later, I joined as their ambassador.
Q: As an ambassador for UNHCR, what do you think you can do to help refugees?
A: I hope I can do something beyond just being out here and being someone who cares - which I'd like to believe anybody could do just by spending some time asking somebody how they are doing and what's happened to them. But I think because of my job and my access to the press, maybe we can help more people to understand. I know there is a lot of hostility to refugees and it makes me very sad, because I've met so many of these people in different countries. I've seen so many wonderful and beautiful things about them, I've been told their reasons for crossing borders and having to be in new countries, what they go through on the way and what they face when they get there. There's a very good chance that these people witnessed a massacre, lost their children, survived the most horrific journey, and now they've somehow crossed the border into your country. I hope that I can say enough, so that a few [more] people can differentiate between refugees and illegal immigrants, and pay attention to what it is to be a refugee, and maybe feel more for them.
Q: What were your first impressions when you visited the camps here in Tanzania?
A: I was shocked. I believe that in Tanzania there is the largest refugee population in Africa - that's some 500,000 people. There are so many children, there is so much sadness, and there is so little that they can do because they are locked in these camps. These hundreds of thousands of people are living in this beautiful country and surviving, but they can't think about their future and they can't really make a plan to go out and do anything with their lives. They have no country or place that is safe to go to. But I have to say, the first day I walked into the camps, I saw a food distribution and I found it so amazingly overwhelming.
Q: The camps are full of stories about individuals. Are there any that have caught your attention?
A: There are so many, but in one camp I went into the Red Cross area and there was a girl on the last bed in the ward. She was about nine years old, and the doctors weren't sure if she would speak to me as she had just seen her mother, father, brothers and sisters being killed in front of her. But she told me her story. When she was fleeing, she grabbed her baby brother and they escaped together - this little kid with a tiny baby. She fed him bananas and they crossed over from Burundi. She was just sitting on the bed, rocking, with her baby brother in her arms. Her baby brother was sick and the doctors weren't sure if he was going to survive. They were very worried about both of them, but we kept in touch and I got a letter about four months later saying that another refugee had taken them on and that the baby was doing okay. It is so wonderful that they survived, but I ask myself how she could ever get over everything that she has seen. But she is still surviving and one day she will be a remarkable woman.
Q: Many of the refugees have been here for years and see no hope of returning. What more can the international community do to create conditions for their return home?
A: I don't know what the solution is, but there is donor fatigue, and I know that after all this fighting many people have lost hope in the whole region. It is two years since I was last here, and I had hoped to come and see people returning home. Instead, the wars have just continued, and these are wars we seldom hear about on the news because no one has invested here - its not newsworthy, it's in the wrong area and involves the wrong people. Their civil wars and massacres are not news anymore because they just keep continuing.
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