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A song of freedom for East Timor

News Stories, 22 May 2002

© UNHCR/J.Morland
UNHCR Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks with High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers in East Timor.

TACI TOLO, East Timor (UNHCR) As the United Nations flag was lowered for the last time in East Timor, one voice rang through the esplanade, silencing the 200,000-strong crowd that had gathered in Taci Tolo, outside the capital of Dili, to celebrate the territory's independence on May 20.

With her rendition of "O Freedom", American soprano Barbara Hendricks welcomed the birth of the youngest nation of the 21st century.

"I am here to celebrate the triumph of those East Timorese people who ended centuries of colonisation in a tremendous spirit of reconciliation and peace," said Hendricks, who is UNHCR's Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador.

Hendricks, the only non-indigenous performer that night, was there at the invitation of the Special Representative to the UN Secretary-General in East Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate José Ramos-Horta.

But her interest in East Timor goes beyond Independence Day. At a meeting with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers and UNHCR staff, she discussed the refugee situation and the prospect of return for the 50,000 refugees still in Indonesian West Timor.

"The work being done for refugees by UNHCR is key to the future stability and dignity of the population at large," she said.

Nearly 208,000 East Timorese refugees have already returned. The country is riding high on a wave of enthusiasm and optimism for its future bolstered by the support and presence of so many international dignitaries, including UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former US President Bill Clinton and the leaders of Indonesia, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand.

However, many have warned that it will be many years before the nation is able to go it alone, without the crutch that is humanitarian assistance.

Hendricks told journalists, "This new chapter in their history is going to be very tough, but the spirit I feel here leaves me with no doubt they will make it."

The Goodwill Ambassador commended the High Commissioner and his staff for their good work, and wished them success in finding solutions for the remaining refugees. She also expressed her desire that one day, she can return to East Timor for a longer stay.

Hendricks' involvement with UNHCR goes back a long way. In 1987, she was named UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and this year, in recognition of more than 15 years of work with the agency, she was named Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador to UNHCR. She has travelled ceaselessly on behalf of refugees all over the world, with missions to Zambia, the Great Lakes Region of Africa, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.

She has also travelled to Cambodian refugee sites on the border with Thailand, and the most renowned refugee camp for Vietnamese boat people, Pilau Bidong in Malaysia.

Jake Morland
UNHCR East Timor

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Barbara Hendricks and UNHCR

Hendricks' activities for refugees since 1986.

Barbara Hendricks Biography

Read about Hendricks' life and career.

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Acclaimed soprano Barbara Hendricks has spent a quarter-of-a-century helping UNHCR to spread awareness about refugees and lobbying on their behalf with politicians and governments. She was named a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in 1987 and, in 2002, was appointed Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador in recognition of her long service for the refugee agency.

In 2012, UNHCR celebrates this landmark 25th anniversary with a ceremony in the Geneva headquarters of the refugee agency. In her years with UNHCR, Hendricks has performed fund-raising concerts, met policymakers and government leaders in Europe, Asia and Africa and been on more than a dozen visits to the field, meeting the forcibly displaced around the world. UNHCR salutes its longest serving Goodwill Ambassador.

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With the first wave of UNHCR's air and sea operation to rush relief supplies to Timor-Leste completed, the focus is now on improving the living conditions of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) living in crowded, unsanitary makeshift camps around Dili.

Many of the 69,000 displaced in Dili have told UNHCR they prefer to stay near the makeshift sites where they feel safe. In response, UNHCR has begun searching for additional sites around these areas to clear ground, pitch tents and decongest the existing makeshift shelters. Not all makeshift sites are suitable for expansion, so UNHCR is moving ahead with the establishment and planning of new sites.

UNHCR has sent an assessment team to the countryside where some 78,000 Timorese have sought refuge. Many displaced are staying with relatives, while others are sheltering in huts, offices, church building and spontaneous camp sites. We are now delivering assistance to some of these people.

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