Q&A: Acclaimed British actress finds new role as humanitarian

News Stories, 17 April 2009

© UNHCR/B.Auger
British actress Romola Garai on the other side of the camera.

LONDON, United Kingdom, April 17 (UNHCR) Romola Garai is an up-and-coming British actress of the stage and screen, best known internationally for her performance in the award-winning film, "Atonement." She also has a keen interest in humanitarian affairs and recently visited Iraqi refugees in Syria and displaced Palestinians on the Iraqi-Syria border with the help of the UN refugee agency. For a change, she was on the other side of the camera, shooting rare footage of the lives, suffering and courage of those she came across in the arid and cramped Al Tanf camp, which is located in the no-man's land between Syria and Iraq. In an e-mail exchange with UNHCR Senior External Affairs Officer Peter Kessler, Garai discusses her trip and her interest in displaced people and their stories. Excerpts:

When did you become interested in refugees?

I live in London and am lucky to have many friends from school, university and work who are from diverse backgrounds. Some of my closest friends are the children of refugees and I have always been fascinated by their stories and the struggle of how they came to the UK and assimilated into society. I first heard about the plight of the Palestinian and Iraqi refugees after attending an event for World Refugee Day [on June 20, 2008] in London.

What did you learn during your visit to Syria and the Iraqi border?

A lot, but here are some of the things that stick out. I learned a lot about the troubled histories of three different groups: the Palestinians from Iraq, the Iraqis themselves, and the Syrian people. This was a lot of information for someone who is no expert on the Middle East to take in, but it was all absolutely necessary to understanding the situation in Syria.

I learned incredible things about what is important to people. It was amazing to me to discover the extent to which being in a supportive community, feeling part of a group, is such an essential part of any person's ability to cope with displacement. The most isolated people I met always seemed the most desperate.

I learned to listen. When someone is telling you the personal details of their life, show them respect and feel honoured to be given access to their stories. Always ask their name, look them in the eye, show you are trying to understand. I learned how to use my video camera!

How did your experience on this trip compare with your day job?

It's very different. Firstly I'm an actor, not a film-maker, so my experience of shooting and editing film is very small mainly picked up from watching others on film sets. I had to learn how to make a film from scratch basically, but it was great fun failing, failing again, but failing better!

What do you hope your film about the Palestinians in Al Tanf and your advocacy on behalf of the refugees in Syria will achieve in the UK?

Relocation. The UK should be taking a lot of the people in the camp. It's a small number, only 800, and they have already proved themselves willing and able to make a huge contribution to a society. So many problems in the Middle East are huge, complicated issues that will take years of diplomacy to unravel. This is a problem that could be fixed today.

Do you plan to do more to raise awareness about refugees?

Yes. I would love to do the same sort of thing again; maybe a short follow-up film to chart the changing situation of the Iraqi and Palestinian refugees.

Should the British be doing more to help?

Yes. It was our war too.... It is unquestionably our moral responsibility to help the people who have had their lives destroyed by the war in Iraq.

What are you working on now?

I'm filming a four-part adaptation of Jane Austen's "Emma" for the BBC I'm playing Emma.




UNHCR country pages

How UNHCR Helps Women

By ensuring participation in decision-making and strengthening their self-reliance.

UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women

Progress report on implementation of recommendations.


Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.

Iraq Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Make a gift now to help protect and assist those fleeing violence in Iraq.

Donate to this crisis

Women in Exile

In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

Refugee Women

Women and girls make up about 50 percent of the world's refugee population, and they are clearly the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is the women who carry out the crucial tasks in refugee camps – caring for their children, participating in self-development projects, and keeping their uprooted families together.

To honour them and to draw attention to their plight, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to dedicate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2002, to women refugees.

The photographs in this gallery show some of the many roles uprooted women play around the world. They vividly portray a wide range of emotions, from the determination of Macedonian mothers taking their children home from Kosovo and the hope of Sierra Leonean girls in a Guinean camp, to the tears of joy from two reunited sisters. Most importantly, they bring to life the tremendous human dignity and courage of women refugees even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Refugee Women

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: Refugees Onward JourneyPlay video

The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: Refugees Onward Journey

A transit centre at Vinojug, on FYR Macedonia's border with Greece is where the refugees and migrants pass through on their journey further into Europe. Here UNHCR and partner organisations provide food, water, medical care, psycho-social support and information for refugees who take the train towards the border with Serbia. UNHCR also provides information on how to access the asylum system in the country. In recent weeks, an average of 6,300 refugees pass through the camp every day, yesterday that number grew to 10,000, a record.
Croatia: Sunday Train ArrivalsPlay video

Croatia: Sunday Train Arrivals

On Sunday a train of 1800 refugees and migrants made their way north from the town of Tovarnik on Croatia's Serbian border. They disembarked at Cakovec just south of Slovenia. Most of the people are Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi. Their route to Western Europe has been stalled due to the closing of Hungarian borders. Now the people have changed their path that takes through Slovenia. Croatia granted passage to over 10,000 refugees this weekend. Croatian authorities asked Slovenia to take 5000 refugees and migrants per day. Slovenia agreed to take half that number. More than a thousand of desperate people are being backed up as result, with more expected to arrive later Monday.
Germany: Refugees CrossingPlay video

Germany: Refugees Crossing

With a huge influx of migrants and refugees heading towards Germany, a bottleneck has appeared at the border with Austria, between Freilassing and Salzburg. Around 1500 people are in the camps on the Salzburg side, waiting for entry into Germany.