Jolie, Rice and Rusesabagina launch World Refugee Day events in US
WASHINGTON, D.C, June 17 (UNHCR) - It takes a lot to steal the show from UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but this week, an unassuming 51-year-old Rwandan did just that.
Launching the 5th Annual World Refugee Day Celebrations with Rice and Jolie at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Paul Rusesabagina was welcomed by thunderous applause that briefly stopped the ceremony.
Rusesabagina, whose role in saving more than 1,200 people during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was immortalised in the movie, "Hotel Rwanda", received UNHCR's first annual World Refugee Day Humanitarian Award along with the film's producer-director, Terry George, at the ceremony.
Rusesabagina, who was also celebrating his birthday on Wednesday, humbly welcomed the ovation but insisted he was no hero: "I am simply a man who made a decision to hold on to my family, my life and my beliefs until the end. If I was going to die, I wanted to be able to live with myself during my last days on earth."
UNHCR Regional Representative Kolude Doherty described the dramatic scene 11 years ago along the border of Tanzania and Rwanda, when hundreds of thousands of frightened and traumatized refugees crossed the bridge into Tanzania as mutilated bodies drifted along the river below. "It takes tremendous courage to be a refugee," he said, taking a moment to reflect on this year's World Refugee Day theme, "Courage".
Secretary Rice and Goodwill Ambassador Jolie presented awards to three winners of the 4th Annual World Refugee Day Poster Contest, which Jolie sponsors. This year's winners were: Jessica Shenoi from Tulsa, Oklahoma; Vicente Echevarria from Des Plaines, Illinois; and Katherine Ricker from Phoenix, Arizona. Admiring the posters, Rice said, "The young poster contest winners we applaud today have answered the call of conscience in an exceptionally creative way."
Addressing the audience, the US Secretary of State read a letter of support from First Lady Laura Bush, then voiced her concern for the world's displaced people, "ensuring that the United States remains a global leader for refugees."
Jolie eloquently and passionately reminded everyone that the United States was founded by refugees. "One of America's most inspiring symbols is the Statue of Liberty," she said. "She is the Mother of Exiles with her promise of refuge to the world's tired, poor, to those huddled masses yearning to breathe free, she welcomed millions of 'new Americans' over the years."
She also reminded the audience that there are millions of refugees whose futures are still uncertain: "World Refugee Day is the day we make sure they aren't forgotten."
Later that evening, Paul Rusesabagina, Terry George and UNHCR's Craig Sanders chaired a question-and-answer panel following a special screening of "Hotel Rwanda". One of the audience members asked Rusesabagina how he found his courage to save over 1,200 Rwandans during the genocide, to which the Rwandan replied: "I remained who I was and did not follow the majority. The majority is not always right. Whoever kills knows that killing is never right."
Another audience member questioned the movie's authenticity. Rusesabagina revealed that the script adhered to actual events almost entirely, joking that only 10 percent of it was "Hollywood spice". UNHCR's Sanders, who was one of the guests at Rusesabagina's Milles Collines hotel during the first days of the genocide, concurred that the scenes depicting the unfolding of events were entirely accurate.
Director George explained the need to stay true to reality within his script and when editing the film. Rusesabagina ended the evening by noting that the best gift everyone could give him for his birthday would be to fight genocide and criminality, emphasizing that bringing peace to Africa is a fight everyone should support. The Rwandan hero has established a foundation to help orphans of the genocide and victims of rape in Rwanda.
On Thursday evening, the World Refugee Day commemoration continued with a special lecture to accompany the photographic exhibition, "Surviving Darfur", by photographer and UNHCR staff member Hélène Caux. The exhibition, which is held at the National Geographic Museum's Explorers Hall for three months, is a collection of powerful and moving photographs compiled by Caux over the past two years in Chad and Sudan.
The photos are as diverse as a woman weeping at the site of what was her home in Darfur but is now nothing more than scorched ground and ash, children peeping through the tarps of makeshift shelters, and the decimated carcasses of livestock that could not survive the harsh trek to the camps in Chad.
In her lecture, Caux noted that "these photos are a homage to courage and the strong will to survive", adding that she values the relationships developed with the people she photographed. At the close of the lecture, ticket sales of which will benefit the UNHCR Sudan/Chad operation, she reminded the audience that "being aware is the key issue to acting further".
The week-long UNHCR World Refugee Day celebrations in Washington will continue over the weekend with performances by musicians and dancers from all over the world on Saturday at the National Geographic and finish with a special performance at the Kennedy Center on World Refugee Day itself. June 20 has been publicly recognized by the US Congress as World Refugee Day through a special resolution introduced by Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat Representative from Texas.
By Joung-Ah Ghedini and Hilary Langford
UNHCR Washington D.C.