Jolie, Powell launch World Refugee Day celebrations in Washington, D.C.

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie and US Secretary of State Colin Powell have launched a series of performances in the US capital to celebrate the strength and spirit of refugees.

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie and US Secretary of State Colin Powell presenting awards to the winners of the WRD poster contest.   © UNHCR/H.Farhad

WASHINGTON, D.C., June 18 (UNHCR) - Starting today, the American public can look forward to three days of music, dance and comedy to celebrate the strength and spirit of refugees in the run-up to World Refugee Day on Sunday.

The World Refugee Day celebrations were launched at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie, and two former refugees. Co-hosting the event for the second year in a row, Secretary Powell and Jolie presented awards to three winners of the UNHCR World Refugee Day Poster Contest, which the Goodwill Ambassador sponsors annually.

At the ceremony, Goodwill Ambassador Jolie shared her experiences from a recent mission to help refugees who had fled Sudan's Darfur region into Chad. She told the audience, "If you've never met a refugee, you don't know what you are missing. They are some of the most amazing people you could ever meet. I continue to be in awe of their courageous spirit and their ability to go on despite the difficulties they face. It is that strength of spirit we celebrate today."

Evocative of this year's World Refugee Day theme - "A Place to Call Home" - Jolie donated $500,000 to UNHCR to establish a National Legal Resource Center that will work in partnership with the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the US Department of Health and Human Services to provide lawyers for children who arrived alone in the US after fleeing persecution or other desperate circumstances.

Jolie's donation is the latest development following her two years of advocacy on the issue of unaccompanied children seeking asylum who are detained in the US. In April 2004, she visited a facility for unaccompanied children in Arizona and noted the importance of legal counsel for these vulnerable children during the asylum process.

Addressing the audience at the National Geographic Society, Secretary Powell said, "Today, on World Refugee Day, our thoughts turn to the hundreds of thousands of people who are still imperilled in Darfur, and to the millions of other driven, displaced people around the world.... Today, together, we renew our commitment to help them at their time of great need. Today, together, we pledge to support and to protect the world's refugees as they seek a new life, a better life."

He reiterated the US government's commitment to resolving the crisis in Darfur, and urged Americans to actively commit themselves to supporting refugees.

"America is a nation that millions of refugees have come to call home. It's a place where people of all races, religions and creeds enjoy the blessings of liberty," he said. "The plight of refugees serves the hearts of all Americans; we who are so fortunate can hardly imagine what it must be like to flee in terror from our homes with only the clothes on our back, with what few possessions we can carry, pursued by the circling fear of torture, rape and death that could descend upon us at any moment."

The United States remains the largest donor to UNHCR and the largest resettlement country in the world. Secretary Powell also introduced a video statement by First Lady Laura Bush, who underlined the many accomplishments and contributions by refugees who have been resettled in the US, noting, in particular, the success story of Mawi Asgedom.

Speaking at the World Refugee Day launch, Asgedom moved the audience with his story. "When I was three years old, my mother saved my family. As my five-year-old brother, my baby sister, and I clung to her for support, our mother led us out of our war-torn Ethiopian homeland. She guided us through hundreds of miles of wilderness, past hyenas, snipers and flash floods, and brought us to safety in a UNHCR refugee camp in Sudan."

Resettled in the US when he was seven, he went on to receive a full scholarship to Harvard University, from which he graduated summa cum laude. He was recently named one of Essence Magazine's 40 Most Inspiring African-Americans.

Asgedom shared with the audience how he managed to overcome obstacles to succeed as a new American, holding onto the credo of his father who had told him that if he just worked hard in America, he would succeed. "Growing up, I often doubted that advice: when I struggled to learn English, when bullies destroyed my self-confidence, when a fast-paced economy left my third-world parents in its dust."

He added, "But as I think of my family's first days in the US, I also remember the people who reached out to us when we needed it most: my grade-school teacher who worked overtime to help me read, the 1st-grade classmate who invited me to his birthday party, a volunteer named Doug Portman who tutored my father for years. When I think of what makes America great, I think of the kindness so many of my neighbours have shown me. I think of how they helped my family finally feel at home."

Also joining the World Refugee Day Launch delegation was Zalmaï, an acclaimed Afghan photographer who was himself a refugee who escaped the war in Afghanistan when he was 15. He received asylum in Switzerland and later became a Swiss citizen. In 2001, after the fall of the Taliban, Zalmaï returned to Afghanistan with the help of UNHCR - 22 years after his exile.

"Return, Afghanistan", an exhibition of photographs from his journey, is on at the National Geographic Museum through July 4. The exhibition is based on a book of the same title published by Aperture Foundation (June 2004).

Jolie with photographer Zalmaï at the "Return, Afghanistan" photo exhibition in Washington, D.C.'s National Geographic Museum.  © UNHCR/H.Farhad

A traditional user of black and white photos, Zalmaï explains in his book why, for the first time, he chose colour: "I felt that now, after such a long time, there was hope again for Afghanistan. It seemed to me that colours were returning and that they would be those of a peaceful country. And so I set out to find this hope, with - for the first time - colour film in my camera."

Other colourful, free performances will take place in Washington, D.C. from Friday to Sunday at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, featuring refugee singers, dancers, musicians and comedians from all over the world.

Thousands around the world will celebrate World Refugee Day in the coming days.