Angelina Jolie Shares Her Experience Visiting Displaced Syrian And Iraqi Refugees

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Award-winning actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie certainly isn’t wasting time being upset about missing out on a Best Director nomination at this year’s Academy Awards for her film ‘Unbroken’. She has work to do. In her role as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, she recently made a visit to Syrian and Iraqi refugees who have been displaced because of war zones.

In an op-ed piece for the NY Times, Angelina (who was also just voted the World’s most Admired Person in an annual YouGov poll) speaks about her visit and how the situation has gotten worse. She starts off by saying since 2007 she has visited Iraq seven times, but has seen nothing like the suffering she witnessed on this trip.

The plight of Syrian refugees fleeing to neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Iraq has been well-documented in the news, as the war rages on. Over a period of 4 years, nearly half of Syria’s 23 million population has fled the country, and in Iraq, close to 2 million have fled due to rising conflict from extremist groups such as ISIS.

“For many years I have visited camps, and every time, I sit in a tent and hear stories. I try my best to give support. To say something that will show solidarity and give some kind of thoughtful guidance. On this trip I was speechless,” she writes.

“What do you say to a mother with tears streaming down her face who says her daughter is in the hands of the Islamic State, or ISIS, and that she wishes she were there, too? Even if she had to be raped and tortured, she says, it would be better than not being with her daughter.”

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“What do you say to the 13-year-old girl who describes the warehouses where she and the others lived and would be pulled out, three at a time, to be raped by the men? When her brother found out, he killed himself. How can you speak when a woman your own age looks you in the eye and tells you that her whole family was killed in front of her, and that she now lives alone in a tent and has minimal food rations?”

Since the Geneva process collapsed 12 months ago, there has been no progress on ending the war in Syria and only a fraction of the humanitarian aid they need is being provided. Angelina talks about how they have reached a tipping point where all possibilities have been exhausted, and the Syrian people are tired of running.

Neighboring countries have already taken in nearly 4 million Syrian refugees but they are reaching their limits. Ten perfect of Jordan’s population is now made up of Syrians, and in Lebanon every 4th person is Syrian. It reads like an emptying-out of an entire country, an exodus of sorts.

“The plain fact is we cannot insulate ourselves against this crisis,” she writes. “At stake are not only the lives of millions of people and the future of the Middle East, but also the credibility of the international system. What does it say about our commitment to human rights and accountability that we seem to tolerate crimes against humanity happening in Syria and Iraq on a daily basis?”

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It is a confronting message to read. A few of the solutions she suggests as more funding for the United Nations, as their refugee agency created after World War II wasn’t intended to help people return home after conflict, not feed people year after year, but that is the situation these countries are in. Another solution is for other countries outside neighboring regions to shoulder the burden and start offering sanctuary to these now-stateless people. And for the rest of us, Angelina also has a directive.

“It is not enough to defend our values at home, in our newspapers and in our institutions. We also have to defend them in the refugee camps of the Middle East, and the ruined ghost towns of Syria.”

One woman who is taking up this cause with a vengeance and has been for many years, is Australian doctor and public health activist Annie Sparrow. After growing up in Australia, studying and working in London, a visit to Afghanistan in 2000 forced her to leave her “ivory tower” as she describes in an interview with Vogue magazine, and become and advocate for people in developing countries who do not have access to key health resources.

Her focus at the moment is on Syria and the Polio outbreak which some Syrian leaders have denied exists. After not being taken seriously, Rebecca decided to write a few articles about the issue, accusing the Assad regime of mounting “a direct assault on the medical system” and this is what got the World Health Organization and UNICEF to wise up to the epidemic and send aid.

Essentially she and her team of medical workers on Syria, which she trained, were responsible for implementing a key vaccination program for this spreading disease in the middle of a war zone.

She has won the praise of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan who says she is a “passionate and dedicated professional who is unafraid to speak her mind” and who “rightly points out that health care is the first casualty of war.”

Annie’s persistent work has garnered the praise and crucial finding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who contributed $1.5 billion to a coalition including WHO to eradicate polio. Roughly $4 million of that amount was given directly to the Assistance Coordination Unit—the humanitarian arm of Syria’s opposition coalition—providing training to Syrian medical workers on the diagnosis and treatment of polio, which Annie has been working closely with.

“I felt like she was raising such valuable points from such a unique perspective—as a doctor, on the border—in the mainstream media, she couldn’t be dismissed,” said a Gates Foundation spokesperson about Annie’s relentless work to eradicate this preventable disease.

It’s easy to focus on the “bigger” media stories when it comes to ISIS and the ongoing war in Syria. While there has been mention of the displaced children and families being in a state of flux, this situation has not gotten any better, and it needs to continue getting media attention.

Angelina Jolie herself cannot solve the problem, neither can one humanitarian doctor with some friends in high places. Raising awareness and sharing these messages from key activists should be seen as a global cry for help. Amongst the daily media we consume, let’s not forget about the people who don’t even have a nation identity, let alone a home, to fight for.

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