News Stories, 16 February 2007
FOYA, Liberia, February 16 (UNHCR) – For years, he sung for refugees and gave them a voice through fundraising performances. Now, the echo is reverberating, loud and clear, as the refugees welcomed Greek singer George Dalaras on his first field trip as the UN refugee agency's newest Goodwill Ambassador.
On a five-day visit to meet refugees in West Africa, Dalaras met with Sierra Leonian President Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabah and was greeted in the country's refugee camps on Tuesday by screaming banners, music and dances. At Jembe camp in southern Sierra Leone, Liberian girls burst into an exuberant welcome dance for him, their bare feet coated in dust like tan-coloured socks. Sitting under a palaver hut in nearby Tobanda camp, refugee women in their Sunday best listened attentively as he spoke, while little girls with specially braided hair darted around outside, their yellow eyes shining at the prospect of visitors.
"The world stood by and let refugees suffer," Dalaras said, acknowledging, "Whatever we can do is probably less than what you need and deserve."
Dalaras became UNHCR's Goodwill Ambassador in October 2006, but is a long-time supporter of refugee rights. Himself the son of a refugee from Asia Minor, he took part in UNHCR's 50th anniversary celebrations in 2001, recorded a special CD to raise awareness of refugee issues in 2003, and in January this year, played two sold-out concerts in Athens to raise funds for UNHCR's programmes for refugee children in Africa.
"We cannot claim to be civilised if we close our eyes to what's happening in Africa. It's a moral obligation," said Dalaras' wife, Anna, who also volunteers for the UN.
The mood was festive and infectious as they paid their first visit to refugee camps since Dalaras became UNHCR's Goodwill Ambassador, joining the ranks of Barbara Hendricks, Adel Imam, Angelina Jolie, Giorgio Armani and Julien Clerc.
"I don't know why they came, but it's made everyone happy, so I'm happy too," said Baidu Fambulleh, a seven-year-old Liberian refugee at Jembe camp.
"They are alright ['great' in Liberian lingo]," said Fatou Sana, an 18-year-old woman from Lofa county in northern Liberia, balancing a baby on her hip. "They came all the way to see us. They are the people who help us."
On Wednesday and Thursday, Sana joined a return convoy of 284 Liberian refugees on an overnight journey led by Dalaras from Blama way station in south-eastern Sierra Leone, to Foya district in northern Lofa county.
"Congratulations to all of you for your courage and commitment to coming back home to help rebuild your country," said Abid Mir, UNHCR's Deputy Representative in Sierra Leone. "We know you're in safe hands, and wish you all the best."
Sierra Leone hosts an estimated 27,365 refugees, including 21,696 Liberian refugees living in eight camps across the country. Now in Liberia, the Goodwill Ambassador is expected to complete his regional visit on Friday.
By Needa Jehu-Hoyah in Lofa county, Liberia