UNHCR High Profile Alumni
Since its foundation more than 60 years ago, UNHCR has worked with a number of celebrities and other prominent personalities who have lent their time, voices and energy to the refugee cause and UNHCR's operations as well as using their influence to bring change. This section pays tribute to these people, including former goodwill ambassadors, and salutes their dedication and service in upholding and supporting the rights of forcibly displaced people, and helping to provide for their needs, worldwide. Some are dead, none are forgotten.
Since the 1980s, UNHCR has appointed a number of goodwill ambassadors, who enjoy a special relationship with the refugee agency and have shown particular commitment to its work. They collaborate with us to advocate for refugees with policy makers, and to help raise awareness and funds. Over the years, the role of the goodwill ambassadors, and their impact, has grown in importance. Others have had a less formal relationship with UNHCR, but their support has also been invaluable.
Past UNHCR Goodwill Ambassadors range from actors Richard Burton, Sophia Loren and James Mason to musician Udo Jürgens, singer Arja Saijonmaa and fashion legend Giorgio Armani. The Oscar-winning actor, Yul Brynner, was a special consultant and conductor Riccardo Muti an honorary ambassador.
As the eponymous head of one of the world's top fashion houses, Giorgio Armani is known around the world for his clean, tailored cuts and impeccable designs. His Italian fashion powerhouse designs, makes and sells haute-couture, ready-to-wear, leather goods, shoes, watches, jewellery, accessories, spectacles, cosmetics, and home interiors. Armani was named a Goodwill Ambassador in 2002 in recognition of his significant contribution to UNHCR's work during the Afghan refugee emergency. He and his company helped to fund raise and build awareness of broader refugee issues.
With a career spanning five decades, popular Serbian singer-songwriter Đorđe Balašević is best known for the social and politically related themes of his lyrics. His ballads describing the absurdity of war and ethnic hatred were popular across the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. His immense popularity survived the ethnic divisions promoted during the years of war. He was made a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador for the former Yugoslavia area in 1998.
Yul Brynner will always be associated with his role as King Mongkut of Siam in the stage and film versions of "The King and I," for which he won the Best Actor Oscar in 1956. But he played many other memorable characters in a career lasting more than four decades, including Moses in "The Ten Commandments" and Chris Adams in "The Magnificent Seven." He was also an accomplished director, photographer and author as well as a passionate humanitarian. He was appointed a special consultant to UNHCR in 1959, which coincided with World Refugee Year. Through various media, including film and radio, he helped highlight the plight of millions of refugees worldwide.
The Welsh actor Richard Burton was regarded as one of the most prominent stage and film actors of his generation in post-World War II Britain, but one who failed to achieve his immense promise. He was particularly praised for his Shakespearean roles and he was nominated seven times for an Academy Award without winning. Burton, who lived near Lake Geneva in his later years, was one of the first UNHCR Goodwill Ambassadors and helped bring our work with refugees and the displaced to a wider global audience.
Born in what is now Poland, Justus Frantz studied piano under Wilhelm Kempff in Germany and is now regarded as one of the most accomplished classical musicians of our time. His talent blossomed after joining the Berlin Philharmonic in 1970, when it was conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Frantz has used his talent to bring classical music to a wide audience. Today, he plays and conducts with orchestras around the world, including the Philharmonia of the Nations that he founded in 1995. He was made a Special Envoy for the UN refugee agency in 1989.
Udo Jürgens has been active in the music industry for five decades and is best known for revolutionizing the German-language pop scene with his addictive blend of old and new. Since representing Austria in the 1964 Eurovision Song Contest, Jürgens has seen his career go from strength to strength. His music still appeals to a wide audience. He was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN refugee agency in 1989.
Sophia Loren is one of the greatest Italian actresses of the 20th Century, who also became an international screen star with her great beauty and acting ability. From her first starring role in "Aida" in 1953, Loren went on to build a career that reached a peak in 1962, when she won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in "Two Women." Thirty years later, she was named a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. In this role, Loren brought global attention to the plight of refugees. Her first mission was to Somalia, which is still a nation in crisis. Loren lives in Geneva.
Best known for his crime novels about Inspector Kurt Wallander, internationally acclaimed Swedish author Henning Mankell was also celebrated for his activism and humanitarian work. Mankell was a passionate advocate for refugees in Africa and the work of UNHCR.
Mankell's relationship with UNHCR started in the 1980s when he visited camps run by UNHCR in Mozambique. A decade later he travelled with the then High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata to camps in South Africa. In 2012 he started supporting key UNHCR campaigns and events including World Refugee Day, the Nansen Refugee Award, and various emergency appeals.
In October 2013, Mankell undertook his last mission with UNHCR. He visited Congolese refugees in Uganda, seeing UNHCR's operations from the emergency stage to the transfer of refugees to long-term settlements. On his return he wrote articles on the plight of refugees in Africa
In January 2014, Henning Mankell shared the news with the public that he was battling with cancer and on 6 October 2015 the sad announcement was made that he had lost his life to the disease.
The Englishman James Mason began his thespian career while at Cambridge University studying architecture. He built up a reputation in the United Kingdom, before moving to Hollywood and becoming a big star in classics such as "The Desert Fox," "Lolita," "North by Northwest," "A Star is Born," and many more. Mason, who lived and died in Switzerland in his later years, became a UNHCR goodwill ambassador in the 1980s.
Regarded as one of the world's leading conductors, Riccardo Muti has worked with most of the top orchestras and was music director at Milan's La Scala opera house for almost two decades. A prolific recording artist and winner of numerous awards, the Italian is particularly associated with the music of Giuseppe Verdi. He currently holds three music directorships: the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini. Away from the music world, he has supported a variety of humanitarian causes through his friendship concerts and other initiatives. He was named an Honorary Ambassador to UNHCR in 1989.