Celebrating World Refugee Day in Washington, D.C.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie mark World Refugee Day in the American capital.

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie and US Secretary of State Colin Powell celebrating World Refugee Day in Washington, D.C.   © UNHCR/H.Farhad

WASHINGTON, D.C. (UNHCR) - As US Secretary of State, Colin Powell is used to dealing with ambassadors from all over the world. But UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie is the only one with her own fan club, he joked, as they gathered at Union Station in Washington D.C. to celebrate World Refugee Day on June 20.

Powell and Jolie were part of a high-profile event to raise public awareness of refugees in the capital city. Other highlights of the day included the opening of a children's poster exhibition, multicultural performances and a UNHCR/photo exhibition.

In his opening speech, Powell read a statement from US President George W. Bush: "As a country that has seen so many refugees contribute so much to our society, this day has special meaning for Americans. I am proud that we are the largest donor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the world's leader in accepting refugees for resettlement.... Today I reaffirm our commitment to protect and assist refugees, promoting their right to seek asylum and provide opportunities for their resettlement as needed."

Supporting this year's theme of refugee women, the Secretary of State said, "To look into the face of a refugee woman is to peer into the very eyes of the exodus. Mirrored in them are memories of fear and flight, of devastation and despair. But when those extraordinary eyes look back at you, they are also the eyes of hope, and surely they are the eyes of a heroine."

He explained, "Wherever tyranny and terror, conflict and chaos force families to flee their homelands, it is the women who become the most vulnerable to the worst kind of violence. And is it also the women who play the most vital roles in their families' survival."

Commended for her commitment to refugees, Jolie related her personal experiences with them. "During my first visit to the field, I expected to meet people who were very different from me. What I learned on my visit is that although we don't speak the same language or share the same culture, refugees are just like you and me. They want the same things we all do. They want a safe and happy home for their family, a good education, health care for their children and enough food to eat."

She revealed, "Refugees have done more for my heart and my spirit than I can ever express in words. They've changed my life with their friendship, love, courage and loyalty. They've triumphed against enormous odds with unbroken spirits."

Safia Jahed, an Afghan refugee, took the stage and gave a first-hand account of life in exile, recounting her family's close shave with the Taleban and the hard life in Pakistan before being resettled in the US.

"My children go to school now," she said. "My husband and I have good jobs. We lead another life. We've been given a second chance. As a refugee and as a woman, I would like to say thank you. If all of these people had not done this for us, who knows what would have happened to my children."

Opening the children's poster contest exhibition with the theme of "Tolerance", Goodwill Ambassador Jolie added, "The United States was founded by refugees.... Throughout the last century, we have opened our arms to many refugees and immigrants. The strength of the United States depends on that very diversity, and by encouraging and teaching our youngest citizens about tolerance and diversity, we can encourage them to make a much better world tomorrow."

Also on display were photographs of women refugees, a UNHCR tent and other information on the refugee agency. Accompanying these was a three-day extravaganza of multicultural performances that featured an Ethiopian singer, a Hmong rapper/comedian, clown doctor Patch Adams and dances from Latin America, Indochina, Central Asia and the Middle East.

Said one of the performers, "It feels good to represent the culture of my country and have someone think that I'm from there. Then I tell them that I was born and raised in Massachusetts. I'm American, but an American can look like this too."