Soprano Barbara Hendricks marks 25 years of service to UNHCR

Making a Difference, 31 October 2012

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
High Commissioner António Guterres presents Barbara Hendricks with a commemorative bronze sculpture to mark her 25 years of service for UNHCR.

GENEVA, October 31 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Wednesday paid tribute to acclaimed soprano Barbara Hendricks for her quarter-of-a-century of service to UNHCR and the cause of refugees worldwide.

"You are really the princess of the humanitarian and human rights world," High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said at a special UNHCR staff ceremony in Geneva. "The authority of your voice is a precious instrument for our fight," he added, before presenting Hendricks with a bronze sculpture.

"Twenty-five years it's a long time and the cause of refugees has been a part of my life since my first mission," said Hendricks, adding that it had been an honour to work for UNHCR. She praised the refugees who inspire her and the UNHCR staff who help them. "Thank you so much. It has been a fantastic journey and I look forward to continuing for as long as I can."

Hendricks has been a dedicated and outspoken advocate for refugees for the past 25 years, showing as much energy and passion today as she did when she first became a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in 1987. In 2002, she was appointed Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador in recognition of her unprecedentedly long service for the refugee agency.

Over the years, the American-born Swedish citizen has met thousands of forcibly uprooted people in UNHCR operations across the globe as well as the aid workers who help them. She has also worked tirelessly to lobby with political leaders and others on behalf of refugees, asylum-seekers, internally displaced people and the stateless.

Her dogged determination has brought results behind the scenes while her visits to the field have given hope to the displaced. And her concerts, classical and jazz, have helped to raise funds as well as raise awareness about the issues. Hendricks uses a musical term to describe her humanitarian tempo allegro con fuoco, or fast with fire.

Her own journey of understanding and compassion began in the racially segregated southern United States in the 1940s, when Hendricks experienced how human rights abuses created fear and limited opportunities for people like herself at that time. On the back of her success, she made the fight against injustice an integral part of her life, both as an artist and a human being.

"I gave myself the task of trying to peel away the ignorance and change the way people think about refugees," said Hendricks, whose first field trip for UNHCR was to Zambia in 1987. She stressed that "because refugee problems are political, refugee solutions are also political and solutions cannot be found without political will." She found that she could become a voice for the refugees to try and influence political change and help find solutions.

She also has tremendous admiration for the people who work for UNHCR and the difficult job they must do. "We are the fire truck that arrives when the fire is just dying down. There has been a fire in the house, it has burnt down and we are going to try to do something with the ashes."

Hendricks, whose most recent field trip was in July this year to visit Malian refugees in Burkina Faso, said it had "enriched me to get to know UNHCR staff who are so devoted and sacrifice so much, sometimes even their lives." One of her closest friends made at UNHCR was Sergio Viera de Mello, who lost his life during a bomb attack on the UN office in Baghdad in 2003.

Reaching the 25-year milestone is unlikely to slow down UNHCR's Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador, who says she has gained much personally from the strong association. "The way I look at life and politics has been greatly affected by meetings with refugees, it has taught me about humility. The urge to be a humanitarian must start in your heart, in your own environment. You cannot talk about human rights in a political sense if you do not live them in your own life."

On Wednesday evening, she is scheduled to be the guest of honour at a dinner near Geneva organized by the Diplomatic Club of Geneva. Hendricks and Guterres will give presentations on the subject, "Current global challenges and UNHCR's response." She will also look back on her 25 years with the refugee agency.