Angelina Jolie hears stories of suffering, courage from Iraqi refugees
DAMASCUS, Syria, August 29 (UNHCR) - UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie on Wednesday concluded her first visit to Iraq and Syria, where she heard tales of extraordinary resilience and courage from Iraqi refugees.
Wanting to learn first-hand about the plight of more than 4 million people uprooted by the conflict in Iraq, Jolie visited a UNHCR registration centre in Damascus on Monday and later spent hours hearing moving stories from refugees in their homes. Some had fled kidnapping and murder attempts and are now struggling to make ends meet and recover some hope for the future.
Stressing this was a non-political visit, Jolie said she wanted to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis and urged governments to increase their support for UNHCR and its partners. The UN refugee agency estimates more than 4.2 million Iraqis are now displaced - two million to neighbouring states and another 2.2 million displaced inside Iraq.
At the makeshift Al Waleed camp inside Iraq, Jolie on Tuesday walked among the tattered tents in a bleak area where there is no running water or electricity, and no respite from the blistering desert heat. She spent a lot of time with sick children and elderly refugees, and inspected a site where UNHCR is building a school for the children among the 1,300 refugees.
In Damascus she was particularly interested in the plight of Iraqi teenage boys and young men, who, unable to work or attend school, face a bleak future.
Shortly after getting off a sleepless overnight flight from New York at dawn on Monday, she visited the UNHCR registration centre where some 2,500 Iraqis are registered every week, almost one-quarter of them victims of violence and torture.
Getting a document proving their refugee status gives them access to UNHCR-subsidized medical care and food assistance. The UN refugee agency also helps Iraqi refugee children get back to school and supplies school uniforms and financial help in some cases.
Jolie sat down on the floor of a children's play area and chatted with Iraqi youngsters about their favourite toys. She was charmed to meet a young Iraqi girl called Zahara, the name of her own adopted Ethiopian daughter.
The actress sat in on a registration clerk's interview with a man and his family who fled Baghdad after the father narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt. Now out of money, the family depends on the little cash brought in by their 17-year-old son, who irons clothes in a laundry.
Later she visited the same family in a small rented room shared by 13 people, aged between eight months and 67 years. Jolie, a mother of four, listened intently as one of the women told her that the extended family used to live in a spacious house in Baghdad. Now she can't even afford diapers for her babies.
"I can't imagine how I could manage to take care of my children in these circumstances," Jolie told the woman,
In Damascus's crowded Seida Zeinab area, where Syrians and Iraqis of all ethnicities and religions live harmoniously side by side, she slipped off her shoes and sat on the floor with a young Iraqi man who had been tortured, set on fire and left for dead in Iraq. He has been helped by UNHCR since he came to Damascus.
The man, who cannot be identified, was thrilled to see UNHCR Community Services Officer Mai Barazi, a regular visitor to refugees in the area. But he didn't recognize his more famous visitor, guessing only that she might be a fashion model.
On another home visit, Jolie pledged to find a way to help a 17-year-old boy who lost his sight when he was shot through the head in Baghdad. The boy, a top student, lamented that he has been forced to abandon his dream of becoming a computer engineer.
But Jolie encouraged him not to give up hopes of studying and achieving something. "There are a lot of people in history who have made a difference despite the fact that they are blind," she told him. Unfortunately, Jolie added later, the boy does not accept that his blindness is permanent, "So he probably didn't understand what I was telling him."
By Kitty McKinsey in Damascus, Syria