Behind the movie star, there is an indomitable woman at the service of the world's neediest people.
By Patricia Abaroa
After visiting war-torn Cambodia in 2000, Angelina Jolie took on a life-changing responsibility; she became an ardent advocate for the rights of refugees and displaced persons. When she returned from Cambodia, where she was filming her blockbuster Tomb Raider, Jolie made contact with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency whose primary focus is to safeguard the well-being of individuals that, for a variety of reasons, have had to leave their homes and their countries. This began a connection with UNHCR that has made her one of the most vocal and visible international activists for the protection of refugees.
Jolie was named a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in 2001 and traveled to devastated regions where the refugee problem was insurmountable, specifically to refugee camps all over the world. To date, she has carried out more than 40 field missions. She is respected for the hands-on work she does and the humility that characterizes her efforts. The people she meets in her travels move and inspire the actress to continue to fight for the safety of those whose voices are not heard.
In 2002, Cambodia’s impact on Jolie’s life would bring on a new role. For the first time, Jolie became a mom to Maddox, whom she adopted from an orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In 2003, in the province of Battambang, she purchased a traditional home and the surrounding 150,000 acres and turned the area into a wildlife reserve, which she named, after her son, the Maddox Jolie Project. The plan, later renamed the Maddox Jolie-Pitt project, expanded to include agriculture, education, healthcare, vocational training, infrastructure, rural planning and microcredit programs. In appreciation of her conservation efforts, King Norodom Sihamoni awarded Jolie Cambodian citizenship.
In 2003, she published her book, Notes from My Travels. It chronicles her field missions to Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Pakistan, Cambodia and Ecuador. The book has been praised for being honest, compelling and humble. In it, she writes, “On the plane from Paris, an African man wearing a nice blue suit and a warm smile asked me if I was a journalist. I said ‘No, just an American who wants to learn about Africa!’”
After more than ten years of continuous work with UNHCR, Commissioner Antonio Guterres appointed her the Special Envoy, in 2012. In this role, Jolie represents UNHCR at the diplomatic level and strives to find solutions for mass population displacement. Furthermore, she has donated more than 5 million dollars to the organization, which have been used to build schools and implement other initiatives to improve the lives of the displaced. Most recently, Jolie has been lending her voice to raise awareness about the conflict in Syria: each day, an average of 5000 Syrians flee to neighboring countries. The activist movie star is a firm supporter of increasing humanitarian aid and developmental support to Syria and the surrounding countries affected by the bloody civil war.
Jolie's devotion to humanitarian causes has been recognized before: in 2003, she was the first recipient of the Citizen of the World Award by the United Nations Correspondents Association. In 2005, she was awarded the Global Humanitarian Award by the United Nations Association of the USA and the Business Council for the United Nations for her work with refugees. In 2013, Jolie received the Jean Hersholt Award for her philanthropic efforts as an impassioned advocate for human rights. The ceremony took place during the 2013 Governors Award, and she joined the year’s other honorees: Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin and Piero Tosi.
Courageous, beautiful and artistic, Angelina Jolie is an inspirational force for other women. As the matriarch of a multi-cultural brood that includes Maddox, Zahara, Shiloh, Pax, Knox and Vivienne, she is not afraid to see the world for what it truly is or to continue fighting for those in need. At World Refugee Day 2009, Jolie spoke about her inspiration and, in a powerful speech, she stated, “The refugees I have met and spent time with have profoundly changed my life. The eight-year-old girl who saved her brother taught me what it means to be brave. The pregnant woman in Pakistan taught me what it means to be a mother. And the paralyzed boy who had been shot in the back showed me, with his big smile, the strength of an unbreakable spirit." ■
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