Lebanon News

UNICEF Ambassador Farrow urges more aid for refugees

Farrow studies a photography book given to her as a gift.

BEIRUT: UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow has called for an increase in global humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees while acknowledging the efforts of the Lebanese government in an interview with The Daily Star.

“I’ve learned a lot from people who have nothing,” American actress Mia Farrow said, leaning forward in her chair, her familiar round glasses perched on her nose.

“This Lebanese family we met had taken in five Syrian families. And they had themselves just a living room, two bedrooms and a kitchen. There were 45 people living in that small space for almost a year until the UNHCR built their house up a floor.”

But the 67-year-old said in an exclusive interview Tuesday that what moved her most were the comments from the Syrian families living there.

“They spoke so highly of the [host] family. One grandmother said, with tears running down her face: ‘They lifted us up.’ I thought that was a beautiful way of saying it.

“She said never in her life had she thought she would be with nothing. Her husband had been killed and yet this family took her in. So while she grieves for what is lost, they lifted her up.”

The actress, who was famously married to director Woody Allen for 12 years, became the main female protagonist in his movies for several years.

Farrow, who rose to fame as an actress, has become better known for her humanitarian work, particularly in Sudan, where she has worked tirelessly to publicize the plight of those affected by the decadelong – and still ongoing – war in Darfur.

“You can’t compare suffering,” she said when asked if there was anything she had learned there that could be applied in Lebanon. “It’s a very different situation here.”

But tented communities are starting to form, she added, and although they are not refugee camps, such an arrangement makes the delivery of food and non-food items much easier, especially as more and more people continue to arrive.

“The priority is keeping people alive,” she said in her usual soft, measured voice. “What we can do is get coats, hats and blankets to people. What we can do is help with tents. How come there aren’t any tents? Where are they?”“That said, the Lebanese government has apparently been extraordinary. Not every country would open its borders to so many people, and many of the children are at school with Lebanese kids.”

Farrow visited Syrian refugees and their host families in Wadi Khaled and the Bekaa Valley. She was impressed by the hospitality shown to the refugees but felt more support was needed to alleviate pressure on the host families.

“It’s a huge pressure on Lebanese families because it’s the poorest families who are taking in the refugees,” Farrow added. “Four million people were in Lebanon before the influx of refugees, what if a million come? What does that do to the demographics here and how do people feel about that?”

It is also a huge strain on UNICEF’s resources, thus the global appeal for assistance. “We don’t have enough of anything: coats, medicine ... it is a challenge,” Annamaria Laurini, UNICEF’s representative in Lebanon, said Tuesday.

“Funding is short,” added Farrow. “There’s not enough money, basically.”

Appointed a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 2000, Farrow is on a long list of celebrities – including footballer Lionel Messi, singer Shakira and actress Whoopi Goldberg – who use their name to raise awareness of various causes.

The actress-turned-activist, who has 13 living children, nine of whom are adopted, is an outspoken critic of what she calls “the political part of the U.N.,” saying that “its state of paralysis serves no one.”

“What really works at the U.N. are the humanitarian agencies. UNICEF works, UNHCR works, World Food Program works. Are they underfunded? Yes. Do they meet all the needs? No, not always. Are they in there trying 24 hours a day? Yes.”

In the end, she said, her message is simple: “My plea for the world is: Let’s be a community. We call ourselves an international community and when innocent people are suffering to this degree, surely we can all step up.”

“I’ll give interviews, I’ll write, I’ll blog. I’ll do everything I can. And I think everybody of conscience does what they can. Isn’t that the way we proceed?”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 16, 2013, on page 1.




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